Title: Somewhere Over The Rainbow: Red
Author: Josan
Fandom: X-Files/Harsh Realm Crossover
Date: June, 2000
Pairing: Not really.
Summary: Krycek takes a little trip to Harsh Realm.
Rating: PG-13
Comments: jmann@pobox.mondenet.com
Disclaimer: The characters from the two television programs, Harsh Realm and X-Files, are the property of CC, Fox: the original characters are mine.
Explanation: Last summer, I wandered off into another fandom and Alex wanted to come along, just to see how things were. I know this series was dropped quickly by Fox, which was a pity, because it makes a great place for crossovers to visit. BTW: this was going to be a series, but until I am once more unemployed (or under-employed), this is it.
Time Line: Takes place soon after the Season 7 finale.
Dedicated to Erika, who opened the door to this world -- and kicked me through -- and to Carla Jane who led a great welcoming committee.


He had been certain that, even if CGB Spender hadn't died in that fall down the stairs, he certainly had no power base left.

Turned out he was wrong on both counts.

A week after they lost Mulder, Alex Krycek was betrayed once again by Marita Covarrubias. She had asked him to come to her apartment as she had some new information to hand over. She'd had that and the offer of a vodka.

Which he stupidly took.

When he woke, he found himself strapped down to a chair, one of those padded ones that resembled a dentist's, in a room with nothing but some overhead lighting. The door when it opened was a wall panel that slid open, allowing him to see Marita with Greta, an unknown man and Spender. Looking like hell, but alive. Barely. Krycek took consolation in that.

He had to. He knew that was all the consolation he was going to get from this group.

The man seemed to have been assigned as spokesman for them. He came up to the chair, verified that all restraints truly held. It was then that Krycek realized that, though he was still dressed in the clothes he had worn to visit Covarrubias, his prosthesis was gone.

"Mr. Spender has requested that you be sent on a little trip, Mr. Krycek."

"I'm sure he has," snapped Krycek, ignoring the trio, glaring at the man.

The man smiled, a discomforting smile, bent and came up with what looked to be a set of headphones. With one hand, he painfully grabbed a handful of Krycek's hair, effectively holding his head still. With the other, he placed the headphones on Krycek's head.

Before Krycek had the chance to try and shake the headphones off, pain flashed through his temples. He had time to hear Marita Covarrubias say, "I hope you rot in hell, Alex."

And then a bright light and no more.

=======================================================

He was outside.

He carefully analyzed the smells that came with each breath. In a forest, or, at least, in a wooded area. He felt the dampness of the ground seeping into his body, the wetness of mist or dew on his face. He listened intently for the sound of breathing, of something that would indicate he was not alone.

Nothing.

Carefully, Alex Krycek opened his eyes.

He'd been right about the woods: he was surrounded by tall, fully matured trees. Lying on the ground. In a barely grey light which he assumed was dawn. Either that or the day was heavy with cloud and the possibility of rain.

He slowly made a circuit of the area with his eyes, verifying indeed that he was alone. Slowly, he sat up, continually checking to see where the danger was. Because there had to be danger for one Alex Krycek: why else would he be here?

And where the hell was here?

He'd been in forests before, in Russia and other places, but this one had a smell to it, a feeling that he had never encountered. And, wherever it was, he was certain he had never been here before.

Cautiously, he got to his feet, keeping his back to the wide-trunked tree under which he had found himself.

Eyes on the alert, he checked out his stash of weapons. Since his experience in a silo, he never went anywhere without a way of getting out of a place. And after Tunisia, he had made certain when he had restocked, under the careful eyes of the bitch who had sprung him, that he had picked only the latest in micro-armament.

Not that any of that seemed to have made the trip with him. The only thing that he could find was the thin wire he had wrapped around the buckle of his belt. Well, no use crying over spilt milk. He would make do with what he had.

And it didn't help that the mist was getting heavier by the minute. Soon it would be rain and he needed a place to stay as dry as he could. Shit! he thought as he passed his hand through his hair, raking the wetness out. What a bloody mess!

And stopped.

Not just the gesture, but breathing for a moment as well.

His right hand was in his pants pocket, looking to see if maybe the person who had stripped him of his weaponry might have missed something else.

His other hand was passing through his hair.

Slowly, he lowered his hand and found himself staring, incredulous, at his left hand.

Christ!

Not really believing his eyes, he used his right hand to verify that indeed he did have a left arm. A real arm. His arm. Attached solidly to his left shoulder. Responding to any command he sent it. His left hand clenching, opening, spreading his fingers. Left wrist bending. Left elbow flexing.

He forgot to patrol the area visually as he made himself believe what his eyes were showing him: that his arm was back.

He shrugged the coat off his shoulder, opened his shirt, pulled it off the same shoulder.

No stump. No horrible scaring. The biceps was whole. Continuing to the lower arm. To the hand.

He raised the hand to his face, used it to scrap the rain off.

The rain.

Fuck! It was raining!

Hurriedly, he pulled his clothes on, carefully wrapped the wire around his right wrist, at hand -- he had to swallow the giggle that wanted out -- ready for use should he need it.

Wherever this place was, if it were Hell, it might well be worth the trip for the return of his arm.

He forced himself to take a deep breath. Held it. Silently exhaled.

Cautiously, the killer once more in command, Alex Krycek set out to explore this Hell into which he had been sent to rot.

=======================================================

The soldiers were nervous. One of their scouting group had fallen behind and when they had gone back to hurry him, they had instead found his stripped body. His throat had been cut. They had tried to stop the bleeding but he had digitized on their way back to base camp.

They'd reported and had had a strip torn off them for not having stayed to search for the weapons the man had been carrying. The officer in charge had been livid: this was the second man he had lost in 24 hours. He had sent them back to find the dead man's weapons and whatever they could of the killer's trace.

Dexter sensed them coming first. In spite of all the bitching Pinocchio did about the damn dog, he had his uses. At his signal, Hobbes grabbed Dexter, held his hand on the dog's muzzle to keep him quiet -- not that the dog barked: he seemed to know when to shut up. A talent Pinocchio often wished Hobbes had.

The two men took positions in the shadows under the trees. The fourth in their party melded into her chosen area. Pinocchio often thought Florence could stand in plain view and not be seen unless she wished it.

The soldiers were young, badly trained, nervous. They chatted encouragingly among themselves. Enough so that Pinocchio figured out that somewhere in the woods, there had to be another team of outlaws. And killing, too, from the sounds of it.

They waited until the small squad had moved out of hearing range to gather and head out in a different direction, hoping that by doing so they would avoid the base camp. Incompetent soldiers were more of a problem than the highly trained teams at Santiago's command. You knew how those were going to act when they caught sight of you: shoot first then ask questions later.

With senses open for both the soldiers and that other outlaw group, the three humans and the dog continued on their way to one of the secret stashes which they hoped they would not find sorely depleted by other refugees.

Dexter failed them this time.

The man seemed to appear, grab Florence by the neck, in one smooth movement. Florence was not pleased.

Neither was the man as she went limp in his grip, sagged her weight against him and then brought her heel back to try and break his kneecap. All done in the blink of an eye.

The man reacted just as quickly. Florence's heel missed his knee because he too had suddenly let his body sag. She caught him on the upper thigh as they both went down.

Florence had her gun out and ready to shoot as her twisting body hit the ground. Only to come eye to eye with the man's gun barrel.

It had happened so quickly that neither Hobbes nor Pinocchio had had time to do more than start pulling out their weapons, drop onto the ground. Dexter had barely growled his displeasure at the situation.

So there they all were: guns drawn and pointed, all waiting to see who would be the first to shoot.

The main problem was that the man and Florence were glaring coldly at each other, almost nose to nose. And the man was not only a partial target -- having Florence between the others and himself -- the rest of him was also protected by the tree he had been hiding behind. He wasn't a clear target by any means.

"Who the hell are you?" Pinocchio's whisper was belligerent with the situation.

Florence didn't bat an eyelash. Neither did the man. He seemed to know that the only thing keeping him from getting shot was the woman with the soulless eyes.

It was, Krycek thought, like looking into a mirror. The woman would as soon kill him as breathe. As he would her.

He'd been tracking the group for a few miles. Knew they were going out of their way to avoid the soldiers. As was he. He needed allies, at least long enough to find out just where the hell he was and what the fuck was going on.

Without taking his eyes off the woman, he made his decision. "Alex Krycek," he whispered back. "Not that the name will mean anything to you. Who are you?"

Pinocchio would have given the last of his ammo to have a clear shot at the man. "Mike Pinocchio." And waited.

"Should that mean something to me?" Krycek was surprised by the flash of...humour? in the eyes of the woman at his tone.

"You're new here." Pinocchio sighed. Shit! Was the place becoming a dumping ground? First Hobbes and now this man. "How long have you been here?"

Yep, thought Krycek, definitely humour. The woman was finding all this funny. Her gun didn't waver the slightest, but she was definitely finding the situation a hoot. "Three days."

Pinocchio made a production of sighing loudly. "Three bloody days and already counting coup. Because you are the one who killed those soldiers couple days back, right?"

Krycek managed a shrug. "Took me a try to get the hang of it."

Pinocchio shook his head, disgusted. "Yeah, but soldiers! Did you have to go and kill soldiers? Shit! The only thing we've got going for us is that this group seems to be particularly disorganized. Maybe word won't make its way back to Headquarters for a few more days."

Slowly, not making any moves to upset this Krycek guy, Pinocchio started to his knees. "Who the hell did you piss off that they dumped you in Harsh Realm?"

Florence lowered the barrel of her gun, cocked a eyebrow at the man whose eyebrow cocked back at her. She pointed her gun at the ground, waited for him to do likewise then rose to her feet. Krycek started up, wincing when his left leg took his weight. Apart from the grimace, he didn't comment on the kick she'd landed.

Hobbes stood up slowly, signalled to Dexter to join him.

"Where," Krycek finally moved his eyes off Florence to Pinocchio, "is Harsh Realm?"

"What, " corrected Pinocchio, "not where. I'll explain later. When we find the place we can restock and spend the night safely. Well, hopefully safely."

"What makes you think I'm coming with you?"

"Let me put it this way, Krycek. Whether you come or not means nothing to us. All you have to consider is how long you'll last if the soldiers get their hands on you. Santiago doesn't take kindly to people other than himself killing his men."

"Who is Santiago?" He knew full well he wouldn't get an answer but he had to ask anyway. The woman smirked, turned and led the way. The one called Pinocchio gave him a look as though he hadn't believed that question, shrugged then followed her. The third man and his dog went after him.

Krycek sighed, picked up the pack he had made out of the shirt he'd been wearing when he'd landed here. He swung the rifle he'd stashed behind the tree over his shoulder. With a careful look behind, he took up the rear, his stolen gun still in hand.

=======================================================

They found the stash in the side of a hill, still partially stocked, about night fall. Without speaking, all three set about making camp for the night. Krycek stood by, watching, more or less having appointed himself sentry. Dexter came to stand by him, sniffing, learning his scent. Apart from exchanging a glare with the dog, Krycek ignored him.

"Krycek."

Krycek nodded, barely glancing over his shoulder at Pinocchio.

"You got any food you can contribute to the meal?"

"Let me guess. No contribution, no eating."

"The way I figure, you didn't land here wearing those clothes, with that gun. Did the soldier have any rations on him when you stripped him?"

Dexter gave a sneeze. Krycek looked down at the dog who was casually licking his genitals. "If I say no, do we get to eat dog?"

Hobbes scooped Dexter up in his arms. "Shit! Already picking on my dog!"

Florence laughed with her eyes. Seemed everyone they met knew the potential of Dexter as stew.

Pinocchio just looked hard done by. He shifted his weight to a hip. "Look, Krycek. The rules are easy. If you share, then we share. If you don't, then neither do we."

Krycek tossed his pack onto the ground by Pinocchio's feet. Pinocchio sighed, stooped and opened it. Inside along with a pair of city pants, a rolled-up black coat, underwear, socks, military boots were some dried ration packs. The soldier had been on patrol duty, had only brought enough for a couple of meals.

Pinocchio took a foil pack of some noodle mixture, left the rest alone. "I take it the boots were the wrong size." Actually the clothes weren't that great a fit: the soldier must have been shorter than Krycek by at least four inches, and wider. From his position he could see that the pants Krycek wore ended just above regular low boots. "They'll make good barter for you."

Hobbes handed his canteen to Pinocchio who set about preparing a meal while Hobbes and Florence went through the stock that had been left, to see if there was anything worth while. Since no one had challenged his decision to act as sentry, Krycek continued, going so far as to scout the areas to the side and back.

Accompanied by Dexter, who seemed to have appointed himself Krycek's watcher.

The meal was hot, which was all Krycek cared about. He hadn't braved a fire since he'd gotten here and a hot meal by a fire helped take the edge off the fear he'd been ignoring since he arrived in..."You said you'd tell me about this place."

Florence looked up from her plate, kept on eating though her eyes never left the man's face as Pinocchio explained. She saw his eyes widen -- just the slightest -- when Pinocchio got to the point of VR, and a slight nod when he explained about digitizing, but apart from those, no other reaction. Not even a disbelieving, "You've got to be kidding!". It made her wonder.

"So, in other words, my body is somewhere else, on some support system, while the rest of me is here. And if I die here, I die there. Well," Krycek shrugged, "pity that cigarette smoking bastard is so close to death back there, I would really like another chance at him."

Pinocchio ignored the reference he didn't get. "Question is, whose side are you on?"

Krycek sat back against the side of the hill behind him. "The only side I'm ever on. Mine."

"To be sent here, the guy who organized it has to have ties either to the Military or to Santiago." Hobbes handed over his plate to Dexter who quickly polished off the leftovers and licked it clean.

Krycek snorted. "Knowing him, probably both. The Military to send me here; Santiago to see to my death, the slower the better."

"Then" said Hobbes, "I guess that makes you on our side after all."

Krycek smiled coldly. "I'll think about that." He turned his gaze to Florence who was watching him with that touch of humour again. It irritated him. "What the hell do you find so funny?"

The grin in Florence's eyes grew.

"I forgot to tell you," Pinocchio handed his plate over to Dexter to clean, "Florence is mute." And waited for Krycek's reaction. Usually people reacted uncomfortably to the information.

Krycek grinned openly. "God! This place is a real piece of work. I get my arm back and women can't speak. This place would do wonders for Scully!"

Florence had no idea who this Scully was, but if she irritated Krycek, Florence was all for her. She stood up, went to make a nest for herself beside some of the broken crates. She wrapped her blanket around herself and closed her eyes.

Hobbes and Pinocchio shared a grin. "You've pissed her off. Not a good move on your part, Krycek." But Pinocchio took pity on the man who had had to make so many adjustments in the last few days. "Get some sleep, Krycek. I'll take first watch. Hobbes, you take second. Florence will take third."

Krycek was unrolling the coat that he used to cover himself with the few times he had managed to grab some sleep. "What's the matter, Pinocchio? Don't trust me to take my turn?"

Pinocchio shrugged. "You look like you need a solid stretch of sleep. Whether or not you decide to go off on your own or come with us. I'd take advantage of it, if I were you. May be a while before you get this much time again for this much rest."

The two men stared at each other. Both were used to making quick decisions based more on gut feeling than on information. They were both still alive because of it. Krycek nodded, made himself comfortable against his side of the hill.

And slept, gun in hand. He wasn't *that* trusting.

=======================================================

He woke to the sounds of morning rituals. Hobbes was brushing his teeth, Pinocchio shaving. The woman was pouring what had to be coffee into a metal mug. She took a sip, winced at burning her tongue. He couldn't believe he had slept through the night, not even waking when the people around him had begun moving about. He couldn't remember the last time he had slept this long without waking at least a couple of times to check on his security. Had to have been long before Tunisia.

Florence watched Krycek under her lashes. The man wore a slight look of surprise, as though something unexpected but not unwelcome had happened. She smiled into her coffee.

"Latrine's that way," Hobbes pointed with his toothbrush. Dexter watched as Krycek got up, rolled up the coat and placed it back into his pack. Pinocchio was pleased to know that his assessment of Krycek had been correct: preparedness before self-concerns.

The soldier Krycek had stripped hadn't come prepared for a camping trip. No toothbrush, no razor. Nothing to wash with. No one offered to share his or her kit with him. It didn't cross his mind to ask. He did take some of the water he had in his canteen and swirl it around in his mouth.

Florence approved when, instead of spitting it onto the forest floor, he spat into his hands and used it to wet his face. So much for morning ablutions. She refilled the mug and handed it to him.

He looked from it to her, as if wondering if there was a catch to the offer. She did nothing, merely held it out to him. With a slight nod of his head, he took it, gratefully inhaled the aroma and drank the first coffee he had had in days. He looked back up to catch that amused look in the woman's eyes. Again. For a flash, he was tempted to throw the brew into her face, to wipe out that glimmer of humour, but then he shrugged, just accepted that it must be some personal quirk the woman had.

Florence grinned, knowing full well Krycek's thoughts. She seemed to get that reaction a lot with some people. Certain kinds of people.

Within twenty minutes, Florence was fully serious having once more taken the lead on the circuitous route she was taking to one of the camps. Their packs were heavier than when they'd arrived at the site. Each of them was carrying some of the supplies they had taken either to restock or to use as barter.

Even Krycek was carrying his share. He had used some rope that they found to fix his pack to his back so that both his hands were free. He'd slipped the socks under the rope so that it wouldn't chaff his shoulders. Injuries of any kind were not something he needed to deal with in unknown country, even if it were only a virtual reality.

They spent one more night in the open. Krycek insisted on taking one of the watches. Pinocchio agreed, dividing the night into four rather than three watches. That way every one got one more hour of sleep.

It was late afternoon when they came upon the small encampment Florence had been headed for. The presence of newcomers was always a moment of tension for any settled area, even if two of them were recognized by many.

Florence nodded to several acquaintances, knowing from the activity that news of their arrival was making its way to the "commander" of this particular camp. Pinocchio too recognized faces, barely acknowledged them.

Hobbes had enough experience by now to know better than to let Dexter run loose. Dexter did, too. He made no fuss when Hobbes picked him up and carried him like a sac of potatoes under an arm. He seemed to know that Hobbes's other hand would be near his weapon.

Krycek went on full alert. Some of the faces he saw made those back in Tunisia look like innocent youngsters. He scanned the area they were walking into, marking exit routes, places to take cover, people he could grab as a shield.

The crowd that had appeared suddenly parted and a tall, wide-shouldered black...person appeared.

After a second look, Krycek decided it had to be a woman. Men didn't have breasts like that. Not unless this was some HR mutant.

The woman stood akimbo, watching them come to a stand-still. She had to be an easy four inches over six feet. Some of that was attributable to the boots, but he didn't think the size of the shoulders owed much to the clothes. She was wearing the usual uniform of a variety of items, most of them khaki or black.

She didn't look particularly welcoming, checking them over, each and every one, quirking an eyebrow at the dog before booming to Florence. "What is it with you? You didn't use to come into my camp with anyone. Now you come with a team and," she gestured to the dog, "your own mascot?"

"Hello, Gaia." Pinocchio sounded long-suffering.

"And him. Since when have you started associating with *him*? Florence," Gaia shook her head sadly, "we're going to have a little talk about the company you're keeping."

Florence stepped up to the woman who easily made two of her and into her hug.

Krycek caught Pinocchio's sigh, Hobbes's confusion and Dexter's wriggling to be put down. From the dog's reaction, Krycek figured if they weren't among friends, they also weren't going to be shot in the next few minutes. No reason to relax his guard, however. The rifle in his right hand was ready to be used; his left hand was hanging around in the vicinity of the pistol he had shoved under his belt.

He watched the crowd surreptitiously as Florence and the Gaia woman made conversation, both of them using hand signals that even made Pinocchio uneasy. It was obvious that neither woman wanted anyone to know what she was saying. Finally, after a few minutes of exchanges, Gaia beckoned Pinocchio. "Okay, Mike. You can all put up in the 'guest house'. Florence says you have information to pay, things to trade. We'll do that in the morning. You know the rules: hand over your ration shares for the next couple of days to the cook. But first, Kenzie!" she called over her shoulder. A small girl, with a huge grin and skin the coffee cream colour of mixed parentage pushed her way from the crowd. "Kenzie, show these people to the showers, will you, honey. And better stay up-wind."

To the sound of laughter, Florence grinned and followed with her "team" to the showers.

They were communal showers. And there was hot water. And soap. Gaia believed that some creature comforts were necessities, hence hot water showers no matter where she set up. And truces among people who hated each other just for the pleasure of washing weeks of moving around off their bodies. Because that was another thing Gaia was known for: you fought with someone on her ground, you could forget about ever again taking a hot shower in her camp.

Kenzie pulled out a battered box and stood by it as Pinocchio, Hobbes and Florence stripped and threw their dirty clothes into the box. Krycek just watched, not saying anything and also not stripping. Florence noticed as she was in the process of pulling a heavy cotton sweater over her head. She poked Pinocchio, nodded toward Krycek.

"It's okay. It's all part of the deal. Gaia will provide us with some clean clothes until ours are washed and dried."

Krycek shrugged. "I'll wait my turn." And he gestured with his head to the weapons that they had placed on the table with the drying cloths. Florence knew Kenzie would report Krycek's mistrust to Gaia, but decided that would be his problem. Gaia prided herself on running a honest set-up. Well, as honest as anything could be in Harsh Realm.

Kenzie glared at him but he ignored her, just taking a position by the table, eyes scanning the shower room, the door. Dexter came and sat by his feet. Kenzie made a grand procedure out of sighing. Dexter sneezed when some of the water splashed out, hitting him in the face.

Hobbes finished first. He was just a bit uncomfortable with the open showers. He was used to showering with the men he'd been barracked with, was not sure he liked stripping naked in front of the kid and Florence. He dried himself, wrapped the cloth around his hips and dug into the boxes of clean clothing to see what he could find that might fit.

When he was dressed, he went to stand by Dexter. Krycek put his weapons on the table, stripped and stepped into the heat of the shower.

He had often in his career gone days without washing himself. Tunisia had taught him the blessedness of water sluicing down his skin. He closed his eyes for a moment, in sheer appreciation of the sensation. But Tunisia had also taught him that showers were a dangerous place. He turned so that his back was to wall. He doubted that theirs were the first penises the kid had seen.

By the time he had soaped himself down, rinsed off, the others had found clothes and were dressing. They waited for him while he found something to wear. The others had thrown whatever they had in their packs that needed washing into the box. Krycek noticed that Florence had taken it upon herself to toss the extra clothes he had stripped off the soldier into the pile. And the shirt he'd been using as pack.

Before he could say anything, Kenzie loudly cleared her throat. With a smile that dared him to say anything, Florence took all the rations Krycek had been carrying, handed them over to Kenzie and, with a gesture, indicated that those were from all four of them.

"What about the dog?" Kenzie stared at Florence, "Where's his share?"

Florence pointed to Hobbes.

Kenzie frowned. "Okay, but he'd better not try to steal anything. I hear dogs taste like pork."

Dexter looked offended.

"Supper's at sunset. Just follow the crowd. Bring your own kit."

Florence nodded, gestured with her head and led her "team" out of the showers.

"Told you, you shouldn't have pissed her off," Pinocchio whispered to Krycek as he passed the man. Krycek scooped up what was left of his pack into his coat and followed.

The "guest house" was a tent-like structure with a wooden floor, divided into four by partial walls. Florence dropped her knapsack in the only empty quarter. Hobbes and Pinocchio claimed parts of it as well.

Krycek stood at the entrance, suddenly overwhelmed by the situation. Three weeks ago, he'd been ready to battle to the death if necessary for his share of food in a Tunisian hell-hole. Less than a week ago, he'd been arguing with one Walter S. Skinner over the validity of the information they had been gathering, trying to find a pattern to the re-abduction of people with Alien experiences. Now, here he was, living yet another alien experience of his own. Or maybe he was just nuts. Finally gone over the edge. He'd often wondered just how sane he was. Maybe now he knew.

Florence looked up from making herself comfortable and realized that something wasn't right with Krycek. She'd been expecting this: he'd been handling the situation too well.

She carefully went up to him and took the things he was carrying out of his arms and handed them over to Pinocchio had also noticed something was wrong. Very carefully, Florence disarmed the man who didn't even seem to be aware of her and handed the weapons to Pinocchio. Hobbes just watched, not sure what was going on.

She reached up her hands and placed them on either side of Krycek's face, on his temples. His eyes were black. If she hadn't noticed their colour before, she never would have guessed they were green. Or sane. Because there was very little sanity in them right now.

She kept her hands where they were and concentrated on reaching the man inside. // No. You can't go there. If you go there, the man who sent you here will have won. Is that what you want? For him to win?//

And kept on repeating, hoping there was something left to connect with.

It took a while but eventually Krycek's eyes slowly focused on hers. "No." His whisper made it out of a tightened throat.

//Then don't let him win.//

Krycek felt a warmth pushing aside the cold that had frozen him. He knew that Florence couldn't speak yet she was speaking to him. He concentrated on that anomaly as the warmth thawed the core of him, spread to his arms, his legs. It didn't happen quickly but Florence's hands never left his head. She removed them only when the warmth had chased away all of the cold.

Then she smiled at him. Took him by the hand and led him to the bed that Pinocchio had so quietly thrown together. At her sign, Krycek lay down and she covered him with his coat. She passed her hand over his face and his eyes closed.

He was asleep before her hand had finished its pass.

=======================================================

He was alone when he woke.

The first thing he noticed as he propped himself up on his elbows was that the sun was shining. An early morning sun. He'd slept the night away again. Without dreams.

The next was that his boots were gone, as were the few things he remembered bringing with him to the tent. Then he realized that his coat was serving as his blanket, his rifle and gun were between him and the back of the partition, covered by what he recognized as Hobbes's blanket.

He sat up, crossed-legged and rubbed his hands over his face.

"Hungry?"

Krycek looked up to see Pinocchio offering him a plate heaped with some sort of mixture. He was about to say no when the scent of it wafted over to him and his stomach growled loudly in anticipation.

Pinocchio grinned, "Looks like shit, tastes like heaven. Gaia's cook is a magician with rations."

Krycek nodded his thanks, dug in. Whatever the stuff had originally been, it was now a hash of some sort. Seasoned with herbs, spices. Pinocchio was right: it did taste like heaven. And there was more than enough on the plate that once his initial hunger had been satisfied, he could savour the rest of it slowly.

Pinocchio assumed the same position next to Krycek, placed a tall mug of coffee on the floor in front of the man, sipped from his own. He waited until Krycek had slowed down to do as Florence had requested. Which was provide the man with a synopsis of the HR culture.

"Barter is the basis of the economy here. Guns and ammo are number one, mainly because they're so hard to come by. Santiago controls all that. So to get your hands on them, you either have to be very lucky or you have to kill.

"Gasoline is also a high trade commodity. For the same reason. You can only deal in gasoline with Santiago's okay.

"Food's further down the line. Clothing. Most of it is military in look because most of it came with the first militia.

"Camps have entry fees. Gaia's is information first, then guns, ammo. Florence bartered so that what we had between the two of us would cover you and Hobbes as well. She *kindly* let Dexter in for free.

"Different camps have different rules and regulations. Some are strict, like here. Gaia expects you to behave properly in return for the hot showers, the food. And she also doesn't care to have you stay longer than a couple of days. As for booze, she only allows a local brew that her cook makes. No hard stuff.

"Other camps aren't that crazy on rules. Some have none. Those are the ones you go to only if you really have to. And sometimes you have to; they trade in commodities that you can't get anywhere else."

Krycek had stopped eating. He stared at the floor as he listened intently. If he were going to survive, he needed to have as much information as he could get.

Pinocchio had only skimmed the surface of the power structure that first night. Now he went into it in detail, explaining about the portals, ending with Santiago's plans for the world, both real and VR.

"So," Krycek finally said, "what you're saying is that this place is populated by people the Military have sent to kill Santiago, but who have failed." He pulled his gaze off the floor, moved it to Pinocchio.

Pinocchio met it, silent.

Dexter found them that way, staring at each other. He made a soft wuffing sound. Pinocchio broke the connection. Krycek looked at the dog who was sitting in front of him as if waiting for something.

"You going to finish the food?" Pinocchio nodded to the now cold clump of breakfast that remained on Krycek's plate.

Krycek looked from the dog to the plate and back to the dog.

"He does earn his keep." Pinocchio rose to his feet. "But I'll deny ever saying it if you ever repeat that to Hobbes."

Krycek placed the plate on the floor and watched as Dexter gobbled up the left-overs, licked the plate clean.

Florence was pleased to see a pair of green eyes look up at her as she entered their part of the tent. She dropped the things she carried next to him. Hobbes explained. "These clothes should fit you better. She traded the military boots for a pair that are the same size as the boots you were wearing. She traded those for the kit bag and contents. The fancy pants and shirt for some extra shorts and socks. And Gaia says when you can spare a minute, she wants to see you."

With a bare nod, not that Florence really expected any more, Krycek stood up and began stripping off the clothes he had found at the showers.

Florence propped herself against the low partition and watched him. She'd seen him naked in the showers, but now she examined him more carefully, wondering if she would see something that would have warned her as to last night's reaction. And whether it would happen again.

The body was good, if a bit too lean. She'd caught a flash or two last night when she was in his head about a prison. And about his arm. Which explained why he often stroked his right hand up and down over the left biceps, as if to reassure himself it really was there. She doubted that he was even aware of the gesture.

He didn't seem to have any modesty. Hobbes was always a bit uncomfortable stripping in front of her. Pinocchio did it quickly. Krycek wasn't purposefully taking his time, or putting on a show. It was as if he and his body were two different entities. From some of what she has sensed, she concluded maybe that was a good thing. She recognized survival tactics when she saw them.

The clothes did fit better. The pants were long enough to be tucked into the boots. The t-shirt was a bit tight, but that would help keep body heat close. The sweater was thin but wool. That went on next. And then the heavy shirt which was a size too big, but that too would be useful.

He rolled up the coat and stashed it into the kit bag which contained a metal plate, a metal mug, some cutlery and a small bag. He pulled open the string that held it shut and looked into the bag. It contained a bar of soap, a straight razor, a small container of toothpowder and a toothbrush. All wrapped up in a small cloth that could be used for washing or a quick dry. Krycek put the toothbrush to use before wrapping everything up again and putting it away.

"Don't forget to visit Gaia," said Pinocchio as he and Hobbes left the tent to sit outside. "She's going to want some kind of payment from you."

Krycek grew very still: he had no information so just what form of payment would Gaia be expecting?

Florence placed her hand on his shoulder. He looked up from it to her. Unlike the last time she had touched him, the only thing he felt through the clothes was the weight of a hand, nothing else.

Florence shook her head, pointed to her mouth and made a talking motion with her hand. Giving a slight nod, he returned the contents to their bag, stashed that back into the kit bag. At Florence's gestures, he added his bag to the pile of theirs in the corner, swung the rifle over his shoulder, placed the pistol back in its holster around his waist. And went off to have his talk with Gaia.

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The last time, he had checked the camp out with escape in mind. Now he really looked at it. There were about a fifty people, he guessed, that were going about their business. Trading, talking, exchanging information, catching up on gossip. A few were just sitting around with their possessions, looking him over as he was them. To his surprise, he could hear children's voices reciting multiplication tables coming from what smelled to be the kitchen tent.

Apart from that one, the shower tent, the guest house, and the one they were heading towards, all the other structures seemed to belong to the people who were travelling through.

Florence waited for him at the door, indicating that he was to go in. She also signalled that he was to leave his weapons behind. For a moment, she thought he might refuse, just turn and walk away. She placed her hand on his chest, palm flat.

"Gaia doesn't like guns on strangers," Kenzie stared up at them from the doorway, fists on hips in a duplication of Gaia's favourite stance.

Florence kept her eyes on Krycek's, signalled some message to the child.

"She says she'll wait for you here. What's the matter, mister, don't you trust Florence? Gaia says that if Florence gives you her word, she means it."

With no real expression on his face, Krycek handed over first the rifle, then, more reluctantly, the pistol. Florence didn't remind him that he had stashed a knife in his pants leg where it was tucked into his boot.

"Well, come on," snapped Kenzie. "Gaia's got better things to do than wait for you."

Kenzie led him into the tent that, like the guest house, was partitioned. There seemed to be sleeping quarters to the back. One side of the front held an over-long battered leather couch, a bookcase with a variety of paperbacks, hardcovers. The other side was Gaia's office. She sat in a wooden armchair on casters, behind a much scarred wooden desk, with a couple of metal filing cabinets acting as wall between the couch area and the office.

She cocked an eyebrow at him, pointed to a stool that served for those to whom she wanted to speak. As he took his seat, Gaia sat back in her chair and tipped it back.

She wasn't smiling today, Krycek noted.

"You're new," she said when she finished looking him over. He hadn't reacted to her inspection of him. Probably because he had been doing his own. "Got a name?"

He thought about not answering then realized it really didn't matter: whatever served as Headquarters in this place probably had a file on him, courtesy one cigarette smoking bastard. "Krycek."

"Been here long?"

"Long enough."

"Are you here to try and kill Santiago?"

Krycek's face got a hint of a smile. "Is that what you're going to report to him?"

Gaia didn't bother answering. "Has anyone explained the workings of the place to you?"

"Yes. Pinocchio has."

"So you understand about bartering."

He nodded, now having an idea where this was going.

"Did he tell you I barter for information? I barter high. Hot water showers, security, a place to sleep without worrying...well, not worrying more than necessary about being killed in your sleep. Clean clothes. Good food.

"If that doesn't appeal to you, then ammo. Some weapons. Sometimes gasoline. I barter fair value. If you should ever come across anything you think might interest me, you might remember that."

"And just what would be of particular interest to you?"

Gaia grinned. "Anything, boy. Anything at all. You look like a bright one to me. You'll know it when you have it."

She sat forward and rested her elbows on the desk. In the tone she had welcomed them in, she boomed, "So Florence says you're good. Actually got the drop on her. Never heard or saw you coming. Are you that good, Krycek?"

"Yes, I am." False modesty had never been one of his virtues.

"You'd better be. You'll need to be to stay alive here in Harsh Realm."

Gaia watched as the man took his weapons back from Florence who then went off to do whatever she had planned. Krycek headed back to the guest house.

Well, it certainly seemed that Florence hadn't overestimated the man. For the moment there was nothing about him that Santiago would pay to know. Not his description. Not even that he was here. He would already know all that. No one came through the portals without Santiago knowing. Not many without his permission.

Still, he might be interested to know with whom he was travelling. She'd be keeping an eye on this one.

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Krycek went back to the tent and got the bag with the razor. Pinocchio had explained that for the entry fee, they would each be allowed two showers. They'd already had one; he'd suggested that the second should be taken just before they leave.

Krycek went back to the shower tent and used the cracked mirror there to shave. After losing his left hand, he'd taken to using an electric shaver but now went slowly, relearning how to use a straight razor.

Behind him, two men were showering, talking loudly to each other, over the sound of the water. In Russian.

Krycek hesitated, continued shaving all the while listening carefully to the plans the two were hatching, confidently certain that no one could understand them.

They were still hatching when he ran into them in the kitchen tent, at lunch time, getting his share of the food. By supper time, Krycek made a careful inspection of the tent to see if they were there. They arrived in a group just as he and the others were leaving. The men were very careful to look everywhere but near them.

Though Gaia insisted that her camp was safe to sleep in, Pinocchio still set up a watch, included Krycek in it. His was the last. Still, they were all a bit surprised when they woke to find Krycek, hair wet, packed and ready to leave.

"You should have mentioned," Krycek said, "that there was a bounty on you three. I'm sure you'll understand when I say that I would like to have a chance of getting out of here. Alive. Thanks for the info and the help." And he turned and walked off toward the camp's entry point.

Florence watched him leave, looked at the other two, shrugged. They hurriedly got their gear together, headed for the showers, grabbed the last meal they were entitled to and also headed out.

None of them spoke of Krycek nor his manner of leaving. In Harsh Realm, people came and went with high frequency. Hobbes did think him a bit ungrateful; Dexter seemed bothered by something.

They'd been walking for about three hours when Dexter stopped and took a stance. Growled lowly in the back of his throat, the hair on his spine standing.

Which gave everyone enough warning to arm themselves before the attack began. They were in an open area, surrounded by high rocks on one side, trees on the other. The shots were coming from both sides. The best they could do for protection was drop to the ground, return fire.

"Be careful," yelled Hobbes. "They'll want us to use up our ammo before they come closer."

And then the firing from the trees stopped, allowing the trio to concentrate on that coming from the rocks. Whoever was shooting at them didn't want them dead: they knew the bounty on them was triple if they were handed over to Santiago alive.

After a quick conference, Florence got up into a crouch and took off for the right all the while Pinocchio went for the left. Hobbes, with Dexter plastered to his side, tried to keep the shooter, or shooters, concentrating on him.

Pinocchio threw himself behind the first protection he came to, caught his breath and made for the spot where the fire was coming from, arriving just in time to see Krycek garroting the shooter.

"Getting rid of your partners, Krycek?"

Krycek untangled the wire he'd been using before allowing the body to drop. Ignoring Pinocchio, he quickly started stripping the body before it died. Florence joined him. Pinocchio stood watching, his weapon still aimed at Krycek. As the body digitized, Florence signalled to Pinocchio that she had seen Krycek arrive from behind the rocks in time to eliminate the shooter. Hobbes with Dexter had joined them by then; he too aimed his weapon at Krycek.

"Maybe," said Krycek, looking unconcerned, "we shouldn't leave the other weapons just lying there in the grove. We can discuss this when we've put some distance between us and the men who are coming to meet with these two."

"After you," Pinocchio gestured with his gun. Hobbes took up a position that was to the side and behind. Florence didn't bother arguing.

They made Krycek walk in front as Pinocchio directed him from Florence's instructions. It was late afternoon when she finally brought them to a stop at an abandoned dilapidated cabin that would give them some shelter, allow them to build a fire that would remain hidden from outside eyes.

Krycek sat, his back to one of the walls, his hands resting on the top of his head. He didn't like the situation, but he couldn't blame them for their caution. He waited until they had set up the camp, found places to sit where they could keep an eye on him and the area outside the cabin.

He lowered his arms and made himself a bit more comfortable. "I overhead them planning to take all of us in the shower yesterday morning. They were speaking Russian," he explained before Pinocchio could challenge him on that first comment. "Seems they recognized you, Pinocchio, from some information they had picked up at another camp. They also knew about Florence. They IDed Hobbes from the dog. They didn't know where I figured in but decided that if I was travelling with you, there had to be a bounty out on my head as well."

"You couldn't have said something?" Pinocchio put his gun down, but kept his hand on it. Hobbes wasn't so trusting.

"I didn't know how many they had in their plan. They were hanging about in the camp with a group of about ten men. I only found out this morning after I left that there were four in on this."

"And the other two?" Hobbes put his gun down as well. Dexter yawned with the release of tension in the group.

"One lived long enough to tell me where they were planning on attacking. Seems they got your direction from someone who can read sign language. You know, the night we arrived at camp. Florence and Gaia, talking to each other.

"The other...well, he's the one on his way to barter all of us to Santiago." Krycek shrugged. "Sorry, I could only go after one of them."

"I still think you could have said something to us in camp," muttered Hobbes.

Krycek looked over at Florence. "Gaia was watching as well. She saw me leave. Alone. One more bit of information to pass on to whomever she passes on information to."

Florence nodded, accepting of the realities forced upon friendships in Harsh Realm.

"Does this mean you've decided you're on our side?" Hobbes rummaged through one of the packs they had taken from the dead men, looking for rations with which to make their evening meal.

Krycek looked around at these people who hadn't cringed at seeing him kill; who had to understand the information he had gotten to save their lives had come from torture that had ended in death. Who, if he understood correctly, were offering him a place with them.

A place, if he wasn't fooling himself, he already belonged. He wondered in passing what the bounty was on his head.

He got to his knees, put his hand into one of the side pockets on his pants. Everyone froze for a moment, but none of them went for a weapon. With a hint of a smile, Krycek pulled out his hand and emptied his pocket of the small red apples he'd found while waiting for them to arrive.

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Archived: June 03, 2001