E
xistential

by Ratadder

 

A

lex twisted his arm against the strange, featureless band of silver encircling his wrist, forcing himself not to scream in frustration. For the fifteenth, or the fiftieth, time it did absolutely nothing except make his arm tired. It didn't hurt so much as just immobilize him, keeping him bound to the chair. He could twist to the side because his prosthesis had been taken away and nothing bound his stump. But similar bands encircled his ankles, keeping his feet flat to the floor. He tipped his head back against the cushioned head rest and closed his eyes.

Granted, it was a comfortable chair. Even the restraints were comfortable, as far is it went. From inside of them, it felt as if invisible but gentle hands held him fast. Force fields, his mind whispered. Which means no getting out of them until they're damn good and ready to take them off.

The contrariness inside him refused to just sit and be comfortable and wait, as his captors had instructed. He assured himself it was just the contrariness, not the panic boiling up from deep in his gut. No, it was just that he hated being bound and he despised waiting when he didn't know what he was waiting for.

With a good reason? He could wait for hours, days, comfortable with just the conversation inside his head. Strap him down and tell him to "wait here" with no other explanation? He was stir crazy in seconds. Who wouldn't be?

Besides, there were things he needed to be taking care of. Billy Miles for one, or what used to be Billy Miles. Out there, running around, doing who knew what. And two, trying yet again to wake up Mulder and/or Skinner to the severity of the issues surrounding Scully's impending 'miracle'.

Scully's very imminent impending miracle. Christ, she'd looked ready to pop when he'd been getting her down to the parking garage and the relative safety of Reyes' car. Pregnant women made him nervous. Very nervous.

And he just wished, with every bone in his crippled body, that he could remember anything beyond that moment when he watched Reyes' drive off, and then turned to go back up into the Hoover... after Mulder and Skinner and whatever the hell was wearing Billy Miles' skin.

The panic flared, and boiled a little higher. Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck.

He slammed his head into the back of the chair. The softness of the cushion prevented any sound but a soft 'whush', which did nothing to improve his mood or soothe his ragged nerves. At the moment, he actually wanted the pain of slamming his head into something solid.

He forced his mind away from what he couldn't do. It was just making him crazy, and he wouldn't be able to do anything until the Rebels came back, so he might just as well stop.

Easier said than done. His fingers twitched and he had to breathe deeply to keep himself from wrenching against the silver band again.

At least he could be fairly certain the Consortium had nothing to do with his kidnapping, complete with noticeable lack of memory on how he'd been snagged. The bastards had thrown over the Rebels, without listening to Blandings' arguments at all. He clenched his teeth in old anger. As he'd come out of whatever state they'd had him in, the beings binding him into this chair had said they were Rebels, hence they were unlikely to be doing Consortium bidding. He believed them, as far as it went, because they hadn't hurt him unnecessarily, or smacked him around. If they'd been in with the new breed, the Billy-breed as he was thinking of them, they wouldn't have been any too careful about his condition while in captivity. These beings had done their business with a distant lack of concern that rung clearly alien, but they didn't purposely hurt or mishandle him.

Interestingly, they didn't have the facial mutilations he'd seen in the other Rebels he'd crossed paths with over the years while doing Blandings' bidding.

Twisting uselessly against the restraints, he spared another fresh spurt of anger for his old boss, immolated in the car bomb. How the hell had the man been so stupid as to let a car bomb get him? He'd known he was a marked man from the moment he started being so forward with his disagreements with the rest of the organization. Alex regretted the loss... he could use the old boy's input now, with the new breed issues cropping up right and left.

Hell, if Blandings had been more careful, stayed alive, maybe they'd all be somewhere else. Scully might not be about to give birth to who-knew-what. Mulder and Skinner might not be in very present danger from some homicidal unkillable mutant Oregonian deputy who liked long walks at the Hoover and being rundown with cars.

Alex rocked his head against the cushioned seat back and tried to calm down. Again. This was getting him absolutely nowhere.

Twenty minutes, or possibly seventeen seconds, ticked by and a door slid open behind him. He wondered vaguely if he was on a ship or in a building. Two of the Rebels came through the door, with a third shadow in a black coat walking between them. Two more Rebels followed, and took up positions on either side of his chair.

"Will you get me OUT of this thing? I keep telling you, I was in the middle of something important. I need to take care of this Billy Miles mess." Trying to keep them all within sight was impossible, and he gave up and focused on one of the ones standing in front of him. He blinked. It wore the face of a Jeremiah Smith. His eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Are you really Smith?"

"I am. And you can relax about the one referred to as Billy Miles. He is not an issue at the moment." True to his own advice, the alien charged on as if the matter of Billy was closed that easily. "You must understand, Mr. Krycek, we do this out of necessity only. We would not choose to force things this way, but we must. Time is coming short, and we need allies among the humans, that thus far have not been available to us. We have chosen you."

Krycek choked. "Me? You've chosen me as your ally." He laughed, harsh and unamused. "You really know how to pick 'em, Jerry."

Smith smiled, an odd calm expression that made Alex's skin crawl. It was so damn serene. He nodded. "Indeed. We do, Mr. Krycek. We do."

The creepy pause allowed the rest of Smith's words to percolate in Alex's brain. "What do you mean he's not an issue? Miles, I mean."

"That situation is stabilized at present."

"Stabilized? How? And what about Scully?"

"Our intelligence indicates that the remains of one Mr. Miles have been delivered to the coroner, after the gentleman in question was pushed off a roof by Mr. Mulder. Off a roof and into a... trash compactor, of sorts."

Alex huffed out a disbelieving laugh. "What?"

"Garbage truck? He was rather... pulverized."

"Je-sus Christ." Closing his eyes and slamming his head back against the chair cushion again, he expelled a breath he hadn't known he was holding. "Of all the lucky bastards, Mulder is fucking charmed or something."

Smith cocked his head to one side, then nodded. "As it happens, we share your opinion, and your surprise at this fact. However, as you are likely already aware, Mr. Miles will not remain pulverized bits and pieces for long."

Alex opened his eyes and met Smith's pale gaze. "No, I don't imagine he will."

Smith took one step to the left and gestured behind him, to the shadowy figure in black hovering in the corner. "Then if we may get on with things."

The figure stepped forward, and Alex sucked in a harsh gasp. "No. Fucking hell. Don't do this."

Smith's face took on a look of compassion, but he shook his head. "I'm sorry, Mr. Krycek. We all are. But it must be done. And time is of the essence, as I'm sure you realize." He turned to the figure. "Proceed."

The man stepped forward and squatted in front of Alex, who recoiled as much as possible while bound to a chair. Green eyes stared into green, past noses so identical they could have switched places. Every detail matched perfectly as Alex Krycek stared at Alex Krycek in horror.

"Relax," said the unearthly monotone of the Rebel wearing his face. "I just need some minor finishing details." He reached out and tilted Krycek's face this way and that, his own ears morphing slightly as he examined the bound man. The eyelashes lengthened and thickened even as Krycek watched. The Rebel then pulled a knife out of his pocket and cut calmly through Alex's long sleeved t-shirt, right up the center, and Alex found his voice.

"What the hell are you planning to do with another me?! I have things I need to do! NOW! Why are you doing this?"

The alien didn't speak, simply lifted the left side of the shirt back away from the stump, and studied it closely. Alex closed his eyes and turned his head to the right as he felt the thing's hands manipulate the stump. He shuddered in place, unable to move or prevent the invasion. His voice rose, harsh and strident. "Why are you doing this? Why now of all times? What in hell do you need my face for? What good is this going to do you?"

A hand came to rest on his right shoulder. He opened his eyes to see the empathetic face of Jeremiah Smith, and had to restrain an overwhelming urge to bite him. "Just another few moments," Smith said. "Matters are coming to a boiling point, and we feel this opportunity cannot be wasted."

The hands - his hands on another being and sure enough, one felt like a prosthetic - went to his jeans, undoing the belt, unbuttoning and unzipping, working the cloth open, hand reaching in and manipulating his genitals enough to get a good look.

"Whatever you're planning, I seriously doubt anybody's going to be trying to recognize my cock," Alex shouted angrily at the thing, whipping his face away from Jeremiah's frustrating gaze.

His own face looked up at him, unperturbed. "Everything must be as exact as possible for our purposes," he said, and now his voice had the husk and inflection of Alex's own, increasing the creep factor exponentially. "Close inspection of this form is an entirely possible eventuality. We do not go through this kind of effort to be undermined by such a small thing as this." He gripped Alex's cock and shook it.

Bright red flushed Alex's cheeks. "Well, these are hardly ideal circumstances to be modeling me! You want bigger, untie me, you fucking freaks!"

The other Alex looked momentarily confused, then suddenly laughed. Hearing his own laugh from outside of his head was so eerie Alex felt a chill snake up his spine. His double tucked him back into his jeans and did them up again. "Humans. You misunderstand. By 'small thing' I was speaking of circumcision, not impugning your endowments. Foreskins may be removed late in life, but it is our understanding that they do not grow back."

Alex stared up at himself and tried to ignore the cool air on his chest through the cut shirt. Tried to doubly ignore the feeling of dread welling up in him that the aliens were being so thorough as to ascertain his foreskin status. This could not be good. "God is in the details, eh?"

The Rebel smiled down on him, giving him pause. It wasn't an expression he saw a lot of in his own mirror. "It was an excellent idea to meet you in person," the Rebel rasped good naturedly, ignoring his question. "Although my performance need not be perfect, verisimilitude is all to the good."

Teeth clenched, Alex tried one last time. "What. Are. You. Planning."

"I'm afraid it won't be possible to elaborate at the moment, Mr. Krycek," Smith said, stepping forward. "While I'm sure we have you safely contained, I don't wish to provide you any additional incentive to part company with us before everything can be put in motion. You have the alarming ability to surprise everyone. But believe me when I say this is truly in your best interest. All will be clear soon enough." He glanced at his watch and nodded to the second Alex Krycek. "Time. Luck to you."

The double nodded. "Luck." He looked over Alex's way, and tilted his head to one side thoughtfully. "However, I believe our strategy will not require anything so capricious as human luck." With that, he turned and left the room.

Smith watched him go, then redirected his attention to the real Alex Krycek. "There will be another wait, Mr. Krycek. May we offer you some refreshment." Apparently it wasn't a question, because one of the other Rebels left the room immediately at the slightest flicker of Smith's attention. "Aranru will bring something along."

Alex sank back into the chair, realizing how futile further struggle would be. He would find out exactly what they wanted him to know, when they wanted him to know it. He drew a deep breath and stared at the ceiling, wondering how effectively he could ignore the omnipresent Mr. Smith.

Or if he should just give in and inquire about the continued safety of Mulder and Skinner.

pov change

Walter blinked his eyes open and winced at the pain shooting through his skull, throbbing in his forehead, traveling down his neck, pulsing through him with every noise and movement. It seemed decidedly unfair to be having the worst hangover of his life, and yet be unable to remember the drunk that preceded it. What was the point of that?

The room swam before him and he blinked again, shaking his head to try to clear his vision. The pain arced all through his head and neck again and he groaned, closing his eyes until lights stopped bursting across his vision like his own personal fireworks display. He tried to lift his hand to press it against his head, hold it steady, keep it from splitting in half, something... but the hand wouldn't move. What the...?

He blinked once more, and tried to focus past the pain. Slowly the room righted, and he realized someone was moving around to his left. He moved his head slowly and looked down at his hands only to find them tied to the arms of a chair he didn't recognize. An expensive, wooden chair, comfortable and soft against his back. The bizarre combination made him feel even dizzier.

"Awake, Assistant Director?" came a smooth voice beside him, with the trace of an accent he couldn't place. "Excellent. We were beginning to worry about you, what with your head injury." He turned his head to the left and found the anonymous person standing at his chair, holding out a water glass complete with a straw. The man looked vaguely familiar, with close cut black hair and an Arabic look to his skin tone and facial structure, but Skinner couldn't place him. Why was his brain so muddy? Was this someone he'd seen at the Bureau? Then why would he still be tied...

Screw it. One thing at a time. He dipped his head forward and drank from the offered glass. He stopped at a couple of sips, mindful of his immobilized position. "Where am I?"

"At an undisclosed location," the man answered promptly.

Skinner stared at him. Well, that just made all the difference.

"The others are on their way. I alerted them when I saw you stirring. They are just completing the arrangements, and will be arriving momentarily."

"Arrangements for what? And who are they? And why am I tied?"

His polite captor smiled. "Because it is imperative that you not be allowed to walk about anywhere until further notice. You must remain here until the Alex Krycek problem is fully resolved."

Walter stiffened and barely managed to keep from yanking at the ropes binding his arms to the chair. He'd already surreptitiously tested them and found them too tight and well-tied to do anything about. No sense hurting his arms. The mention of Krycek, however, made every muscle in his body tighten and prepare to spring out of the chair. "Alex KRYCEK? What in hell has that bastard got to do with all this?"

"Oh, everything. He's why you're here." The man stood at ease next to the comfortable chair, staring at Walter, unblinking.

Ignoring his guard, Walter felt his aching head explode with sudden memories, triggered by the name Alex Krycek. Krycek... bringing Mulder and Scully to his office, talking a blue streak about unstoppable aliens unlike any they'd seen. Confirming Mulder's tales of an indestructible Billy Miles. Mulder... pushing Scully at Krycek... at Krycek?... and following Skinner to go chase down Billy Miles. The roof... Billy... Mulder pushing him over the edge... the garbage truck.

Closing his eyes, he tried to reconstruct the very last thing he remembered. Getting Billy's shredded remains seen to, and taken to the coroner. Trying to determine if Scully and Reyes had gotten off safely. Wondering where Krycek had gotten to. Only to eventually return to his own office, to find Krycek and Doggett there, with an impossible tape of Billy Miles walking out of the morgue, whole and unscathed. He remembered exactly the gut-dropping sensation of seeing so much ground meat reassembled and walking around.

And the gut-roiling feeling of being left in charge of Krycek. The man sitting oddly silent on his office couch, sipping a soda and occasionally smirking. His sudden rise and wordless stride from the office, despite Skinner's shouts, and the equally sudden appearance of the reanimated Billy Miles.

Racing down the hall for the elevator, watching the door close, watching those green eyes through the narrowing gap, realizing no help was coming from that quarter, as if he'd actually expected...

Wondering why every time, the realization still had the power to hurt.

Forcing the door, getting in the elevator... the hand, impossible but there, coming through the metal door like an ax, striking... pain...

He drew a slow breath in through his nose and released it through his mouth. What... ? But that was all. Krycek and the elevator. And now... here, tied up and feeling like his head was about to explode, or fall off his shoulders, or both. He got a distinct mental image of his head rolling off his shoulders and exploding before it hit the floor.

He caught his own thought train before it could progress much further down that path, and wondered exactly how much head trauma was too much.

"Where is he," Walter snarled, forcing himself back on track. Not that he particularly wanted to see his own personal demon, but he'd learned by now that the best way to deal with Alex Krycek was to get to the point as quickly as possible. Krycek was the last person he remembered, therefore it stood to reason Krycek was responsible for this... whatever this was.

"We have no idea. But we have intelligence he will be making a visit to your Hoover Building presently. This is why you must not be at your office, or anywhere near that location. Or for that matter, at the hospital from which we removed you."

Walter blinked and began to truly wonder if his head injury was worse than he thought. He'd missed something, or misunderstood. He reviewed in his head what the man had said. Krycek was the reason he was here, he needed to stay here until the Krycek problem was resolved, but apparently Krycek wasn't the one keeping him here? "Whoa... wait. I'm not following. Is Krycek the one who kidnapped me or not?"

Another pleasant smile graced the neutral face. "Oh, I'd hardly call it kidnapping, Mr. Skinner. We are merely... detaining you for a short while. As your government so often does. I'm sure you understand." The dark eyes glittered with the first hint of expression, but it was shuttered so quickly Walter wasn't sure what he'd seen. "We removed you from the hospital, brought you to these more private accommodations. And no, to answer your question, Mr. Krycek is not the person detaining you, though he is indirectly responsible for your detainment. You see, Mr. Krycek has not been... fulfilling his obligations where you are concerned."

"Fulfilling his obligations?"

The smile faded. "You're still alive. Which I'm sure you've noticed." The utter chill settling over the man's face was broken as the door behind them opened. "Ah, here they are." He stepped away from Walter to greet the newcomers.

Walter's first clue was the familiar scent of cigarette smoke.

pov change

Scully.

Mulder came to on the chill table and tried to sit up. Scully! "Scully..." He needed to get to her... no... that was wrong.

No. He needed to stay away from her. Let her deliver safely. With Reyes. Somewhere that only Doggett knew. But... where the hell was he?

He tried to sit up again. Well, shit. He was strapped to a cold metal - or something - table, naked except for a sheet draped over him. He couldn't remember the last... well, he wasn't sure how long ago his last memory actually was. Still, he'd woken up in worse situations. Now if he could just be sure that Scully wasn't somewhere here as well.

He wasted a few moments trying to piece together how he might have come to be where he was. Wherever that was. Bizarre, really. He remembered... Skinner, injured. Head injury, mumbling something about Billy Miles, Krycek and an elevator. Doggett was there. He and Doggett were going to leave, go track down Doggett's 'friend' Knowle Rohrer. He stopped by the restroom on the way out of the hospital...

Then woke up on this table.

Nothing hurt. No beings, human or otherwise, had appeared on his wakening. He wasn't sure exactly how long he'd been unconscious. The room had no clock that he could see. The room didn't have much of anything, actually.

It felt oddly familiar, and he tried to block the cold feeling of dread that unfurled in his stomach.

Strange featureless rooms with devices, lights, stone dentist chairs, restraints, pain... pain... screaming endlessly... agony... formless, terrible pain, overwhelming...

He stopped the fleeting storm of freeze frame images, the fractured remains of the only bits and pieces he had from his time as an abductee. Something was ringing the bell of those memories, something about this place. When the door slid open and a bounty hunter walked in, he almost threw up.

The memories surged again but he suppressed them ruthlessly and stared wordlessly at the alien. It stared back at him, and just the sight of its thick face and blunt features provoked intense anger in him, his hands curling into fists. Finally, he broke the silence. "First run didn't provide enough data? Needed a return visit?" His attempt at scathing came out rather more shaky than he would have liked. He desperately wanted to scream for Scully, but he didn't want to give Chucklehead any ideas. If they were concentrating on him, maybe they were leaving her alone. He was relieved he'd told Doggett to keep the location from him. At least he could be assured it wouldn't be tortured out of him.

The bounty hunter smiled, and Mulder's stomach heaved again. He remembered that expression well. It shook its head. "No, no return visit. You're still on your own planet, and you're only here with us temporarily. We just needed to remove you from the equation for a brief time. Alex Krycek needs to die, and you seem to be remarkably unable to actually kill him, despite numerous provocations, opportunities, and means. We do not pretend to understand it, but we are now prepared to take steps to correct it. Matters have become too dangerous, too unstable."

Mulder frowned. Krycek needed to die? Well, he wasn't exactly one to argue except... his stomach did another acrobatic flip at the thought of Krycek dead. Except he did want to argue. He might say Krycek needed to die, and in fact he was pretty sure he'd told Krycek that to his face repeatedly, but who was this alien behemoth to decree death on his personal enemy? Krycek was... well, hell. Krycek was Krycek. He was a traitorous bastard of the highest order, but he was always there, popping up around this corner and then out from behind that tree. He always had something interesting to say, always knew more than he was saying, always had some strange hidden motivations that Mulder could never quite discern. If anyone ought to kill Krycek, it should be him, and it should be after the squirmy little rat answered all his questions. Not at the casual whim of some hulking alien with bad taste in faces, who wanted him dead for...

Mulder blinked. Why would the bounty hunter want Krycek dead? If the bounty hunters, traditionally in league with the oiliens and the Consortium, wanted Krycek dead, did that mean... Alex really was on the right side? Yeah, right. Please. Pull the other one. Krycek is on his own side, period, end of story.

Oblivious to, or simply uncaring of, the jumble of thoughts racing through Mulder's head, the bounty hunter walked the rest of the way into the room and switched on a bank of monitors to the left of Mulder's table. Mulder turned his head to the side and watched as a variety of scenes from the Hoover building appeared on screens. He realized instantly that he was seeing the various views of the security cameras installed throughout the building. Was he being held somewhere in the Hoover? He glanced around the room again, then winced. Obviously, given the access the Consortium had to the Hoover, the aliens could be anywhere and still be looped in on the FBI's security system.

Mulder watched as the alien scanned the screens, then tapped in a few commands on a keyboard. The views changed, suddenly replicating one scene, then shifting to different angles of the same scene... the parking garage.

Mulder startled as he saw what the bounty hunter was homing in on. Alex Krycek, seated in a car. With Knowle Rohrer. Anger started to bubble up. Okay, so maybe Krycek did need to die. What the hell was he doing with Doggett's "secret" source?

The bounty hunter continued to play at the screens, and Mulder realized he was focusing on a second car. "There," the bounty hunter said suddenly, satisfaction evident.

Time slowed, and twisted in on itself. The room seemed to tilt, and Mulder wondered why he didn't slide right off the table, before he remembered he was strapped down. He stared in sick fascination as the car that came into view of the cameras slowed and stopped, and the passengers became visible. Even before he could make out faces, he somehow knew exactly what he was going to see. John Doggett.

And Fox Mulder.

pov change

Another nameless Rebel wheeled in a cart covered in electronics, or at least they looked like electronics. On closer inspection, as much as Alex could see from his "seat", it was obviously alien technology. Jeremiah stood up and took the other side of the cart, moving it over so it sat directly in front of Alex, and with a touch a screen came to light.

Alex sat up straighter from his slump. He'd been counting off minutes in his head this time, as a method of ignoring Smith's attempts at genial conversation. He knew that much less time had elapsed than he'd first thought. He wondered if whatever they'd knocked him out with was fucking with his perception of time passing. He squinted as multiple scenes flashed across the large monitor. With the speed they were moving it was hard to be sure, but it appeared to be the Hoover. Possibly another location interspersed. Quite frankly he hoped it was the Hoover; maybe that would give him some sense of what was going on with the situation out of which he'd been yanked.

"It appears everything is in motion, Mr. Krycek. I have to say again, I apologize in advance for what I know is going to be a very difficult situation for you, but it's necessary. To be the most efficient, effective ally for us, you need to be 'off the radar' so to speak."

"Off the radar?" Alex stiffened. That sounded somehow ominous.

"Your former associates must believe you are completely out of the 'game', beyond reappearing such as you have over the years. In addition, even those who would be your, and our, allies are best served by believing you... gone."

"Gone?" A sense of heavy dread settled low in Alex's stomach.

Jeremiah stopped the flickering images on one scene, and Alex immediately recognized the Hoover parking garage, from years of skulking around in it. The scene widened, focused, and the feeling of dread swelled up into his chest and throat. He watched the being wearing his face and body get out of a car occupied by Knowle Rohrer. As the other him faded back into the shadows of the garage and Rohrer's car pulled away, Jeremiah flipped the scene again, and found another car, with another passenger.

Mulder.

Shit.

pov change

Spender walked slowly into Walter's line of sight. He took a drag off his cigarette, blew smoke into Walter's face, and smiled pleasantly. "Mr. Skinner. Good of you to join us. So glad you could make it. I hope my Tunisian compatriot has been making you comfortable."

Walter glowered, but said nothing. He could have been answering politely in fluent French for all the reaction from Spender. He tried to ignore the throbbing in his head in favor of concentrating on staying calm, and figuring out what the man wanted. Like Krycek, experience told him to get to the point fast with these people. Still, he wouldn't give the man the satisfaction of asking about the reasons for his kidnapping.

Spender didn't seem to notice, or care. He continued, blasé. "As I'm sure you're aware, we have an operative," pause, long drag, exhale, "or should I say former operative, who has been nothing but a thorn in everyone's side. Including yours, I dare say." He glanced at one of the men who had followed him in, lifting his cigarette. The man immediately approached, withdrawing an ashtray from his coat. Spender ground out the cigarette, extracted his pack, and lit up again. After a full inhale and exhale, he continued, unhurried. "This former operative has had his uses, even while he was working to sabotage us, as in the situation with your continued survival despite repeated orders and punishments for failure to comply." He paused to draw in again on the fresh cigarette, an annoyed look flitting over his face. "You will find future representatives of our organization to be not half so... amenable as Mr. Krycek has been to your wishes and needs."

Walter kept his face as blank as possible. Amenable? If Krycek was amenable to my needs, he didn't want to see who they send next. And yet, there's that implication again. Guard dog hinted at it, and now here's Spender, acting like I've always known that Krycek disobeyed direct orders in keeping me alive. So Krycek had been ordered to kill, and he hadn't done so? He tried to make sense of it all in his aching head, without looking the least bit puzzled or surprised. Something must have reflected on his face though, because Spender started to speak then halted.

He squinted at Skinner. Finally, after a long silent moment, he asked simply, "Are you in pain? The hospital gave you medication before we... released you from their care, but I have no doubt it's worn off by now. We can give you something to make you more comfortable."

Walter blinked, and unclenched his teeth. "Of course. I'd certainly take anything you offered me," he drawled sarcastically.

Spender shrugged, the cigarette rising and falling in a careless gesture that sprinkled ash on the carpet. "It's neither here nor there to me. You are our guest for the moment and will remain so until this matter is all sorted out. So there's no need for you to be uncomfortable, but it's entirely your choice."

Walter glanced down pointedly at his bound wrists.

Spender smiled. "Ah, apologies, Assistant Director, but that can't be helped. Should you decide you'd prefer a painkiller, please don't hesitate to let us know."

"So I can be feeling better for when you kill me? Thanks, but no thanks. With this headache, I'll just welcome the death a little quicker. Got to look on the positive side of things, you know?"

Spender's smile widened, the thin-lipped expression of condescending amusement to which Walter was so accustomed. "Oh, you're not marked for death any longer, Mr. Skinner. Not at the moment anyway. Alex may have completely undermined our nanocyte plans for you, but with this latest turn of events, you just may become useful again. You'll certainly be useful to our purposes today, and then after today, you will find yourself quite a bit less useful to other parties. Which suits our purposes very well." Satisfaction fairly rolled off the man in waves, and Walter could feel his skin itching in reaction. He wondered idly if antihistamines would work against Spender-induced skin crawling, but the thought just made him ponder the extent of his head injury again.

"But that is neither here nor there, today. As I was saying," Spender continued, "dear Alex has had his uses, even when he wasn't... directly... under our control but-"

Walter snorted. "Was he ever under your control?" he jeered.

Spender's lips thinned, the smile disappearing. His eyes narrowed. He continued as if Skinner hadn't spoken. "However, Alex has outlived his uses. He thinks he is so very clever, but we are perfectly aware he has thrown in with the Rebels, and this the organization will not stand for. Our alien associates are quite displeased. He can attempt to unite the Rebels with a human resistance all he wants... Blandings tried the same and look where it got him." The smile reappeared. "Dead. As Mr. Krycek will soon be. In a bit of poetic justice, in fact. Dead by the very hands for which he betrayed the organization. Oh yes, Mr. Skinner, don't think for one moment that we don't know that he's been passing information to you and Mr. Mulder, and watching out for the good doctor's blessed event."

Walter caught his breath. What the hell? Watching out for Scully and the baby? Krycek had tried to force Walter to choose between Mulder's life and the baby's! What kind of delusion was Spender functioning under? And... passing information? Who the hell was Blandings? Krycek... working with the Rebels? No doubt about it, Spender was obviously under the impression he knew more than he did, and at the moment he didn't see any reason to dissuade him from that belief.

"All that's over now; don't expect anymore assistance from that avenue. It's time for a permanent solution... a little something to deal with the Alex Krycek Problem and sabotage the most promising human/Rebel alliance at the same time. The organization is no longer content to have him out causing chaos, constantly upsetting the playing field, endangering our relations with our associates. When the decision was made, I was only too happy to take charge of the project. If I'd had my way, a permanent solution would have been enacted years ago."

"I was given to understand you tried... more than once," Walter interjected casually. "And failed. Repeatedly."

Spender's face went cold as he sucked on his cigarette for a long moment. Finally, he spoke again. "Don't push it, Assistant Director."

Skinner smiled. "Like the proverbial bad penny, isn't he?"

"This penny is about to be removed from circulation." He snapped his fingers and the man who had provided him with an ashtray walked quickly across the room and started working at a row of screens.

As he turned them each on, Walter watched scenes pop up from the various Hoover security cameras. He blinked, seeing himself on one screen. What the... "So you're taping me? What else is new."

Spender laughed. "Look closer, Mr. Skinner, this isn't a tape, and it's not on playback." He paused and waited while Walter squinted at the screen, at the date and time stamp in the upper left corner. "This is live feed."

"But I'm... what..."

Suddenly, everything clicked. The insistence that he not be anywhere near the Hoover, or out walking around anywhere. The comments about a permanent solution for Krycek, and from the hands they believed he'd betrayed them for.

"You bastards. You're framing me for murder. Again."

"Relax. I'm sure any court of law would consider a plea from you of ridding the world of a dangerous criminal. Who knows, perhaps it will even be in self-defense. One never knows with our Alex." Spender seated himself in a chair brought to him by another of the flunkies.

Walter stared as he watched himself walking through the Hoover garage. "How-"

Spender laughed. "Amazing, isn't it? Don't worry, we haven't had you cloned. That, my friend, is one of our associates... what Mr. Mulder refers to as the 'bounty hunter'. He's told you of them, I believe?"

Walter swallowed hard. The bounty hunters... able to assume any image at will, perfectly. Everyone coming into contact would believe this thing to be him. And Krycek... slowly, all the implications sank in.

Alex would die, believing Walter had killed him.

pov change

"You want me to kill him," Mulder managed faintly. "You've got... you... one of those..." He stared at the mirror image of himself on the screen. Obviously, another bounty hunter. He did remember, very well, that there was more than one. That instant, as his abduction first began, was burned into his brain.

A bounty hunter, wearing his face, talking to Doggett. Shit. Please, please let Doggett be smart enough to refuse if this thing asked him for Scully's location. Please, let the aliens not know that Doggett was the only one who knew where she was. Please let the thing just kill Krycek and then disappear so Mulder could take back his life.

The thought felt like a punch to the gut, the minute he thought it. Fuck. Let the thing kill Krycek. Something shrieked long and loud in Mulder's head. Krycek wasn't supposed to die.

Why the fuck not? He'd certainly killed enough others, inflicted enough misery, betrayed enough people, committed enough crimes...

It didn't matter. Mulder watched as he and Doggett split up, and felt as if he was watching a car crash in slow motion. He could play the internal debate with himself from here until doomsday... it just didn't matter. He would never convince himself.

Alex Krycek should not die. He... he was necessary. Something deep inside Mulder knew it, knew it with the kind of certainty that had kept him from killing the man even in a drugged stupor. Scully had shot him to prevent it, and he'd never told her that she didn't even need to. He'd never actually pulled it out into the light of day and looked at it, but it had been there all along, some underlying conviction about Alex.

Needed.

His breathing started to pick up as he watched Krycek come to the car window, brandishing a gun. No. Fuck, no Alex, just go away. Run away. Use your superhuman sixth sense for survival and get the fuck away from me. Don't let them do this, don't let them use us against each other this way. PLEASE. He tried to project his thoughts into the man, even as he watched Krycek point the gun at the bounty hunter wearing his face. Or that's fine too... shoot the bastard. I don't care.

Something twinged in Mulder... okay, I do care, because it would mean you actually could kill me, and I honestly didn't think you would, but... He watched himself and Alex argue, and realized the bounty hunter present with him was turning up the sound. He heard the thing wearing his face use his voice to call Krycek a string of insults that, he had to admit, sounded like they were right out of his own brain. Fuck, fuck, fuck. There was no way Krycek would realize this wasn't him. Shoot the fucker. I'll get over it. I'll kick your ass later for shooting me.

He could hear Alex now, that rough, scratchy voice, emotional and... disjointed. Mulder's forehead wrinkled as he heard Alex's words. What the hell was he rambling on about? No, no Alex... whatever I've felt for you, it hasn't been brotherly. Trust me on that one. He could hear enough to know that Alex didn't want to shoot, and the aching scream welled up inside him again. The hesitation would be Alex's death knell... the bounty hunter would step from the car, use its superior strength, or just knock the gun from Alex's hand and keep the Mulder guise.

Of course. Mulder felt the realization hit with lightening bolt force. Of course he would keep the Mulder guise. If it was here on screen for them... it was being taped. Someone needed proof. They needed proof that Alex Krycek was dead, and that Fox Mulder killed him.

And why not? Given Alex's almost preternatural ability to stay alive, contrasted with his and Alex's history, the aliens probably realized that Mulder would be the only person who could kill Alex as easily and effectively as they needed. They knew Alex would get up close and personal with Mulder, like he always did. They knew a Mulder substitute could take him out, just as a Mulder substitute had gotten to Scully all those years ago.

And Alex would die. And he would die, believing Mulder would actually kill him.

"RUN, YOU STUPID FUCK!" Mulder heard himself scream at the monitors. He felt every limb pulling futilely against the bonds holding him down. This couldn't be happening.

The bounty hunter glanced over at him and shook his head. "We do not understand this need you humans have to keep your enemies alive. Surely you realize it is counter-productive."

"Oh, shut up," Mulder screamed at the alien, still fighting the table straps. "What the hell good does this do?!"

The alien shrugged. "Obviously, it removes the Alex Krycek from the equation. A necessary step. And having you kill him, on camera, is quite effective as well." He didn't elaborate any further, but ducked his head and studied the interaction on screen. "You do not think he will shoot my colleague before my colleague can get the upper hand, do you?"

Mulder groaned and slammed his head back into the table. The pain was welcome, and he did it again. "No. Fuck no, the stupid bastard won't shoot me. He's never even been able to throw a goddamn punch at me." He bounced his head on the table and clenched his teeth to keep from screaming again, then turned to watch the screen. As horror-struck as he was, he couldn't keep from staring.

After all, it was the last time he'd see Alex Krycek.

pov change

Alex stared at the scene unfolding, nausea welling up in him. Smith and the others had gone silent. All eyes were on the monitor.

"Mulder won't kill him," Alex whispered, and he hardly recognized his own voice. "Me, I mean. Mulder won't kill me. This won't work."

Smith looked away from the screen and focused on Alex. Alex could read the outright pity in the man's eyes and he wanted to punch him. What did he know of Mulder? Mulder wouldn't kill him.

Smith cleared his throat, and spoke in a gentle voice. "I do understand how difficult this is, Mr. Krycek. If there was another way..." he trailed off. "However, this must be done, in just this manner. Given how closely the Colonists and the Consortium follow Mr. Mulder, we can be assured that him killing you, on tape, will get the proof of your death into all the right hands. You must be officially dead to all concerned. It is necessary for you to be effective in our efforts. To remove a chess piece from play, and yet to be able to miraculously reintroduce it at just the right time... you must see the benefit. Particularly when that piece is a knight, well known for his unpredictable movements."

"Mulder. Won't. Kill me." Alex heard the stubborn, childish note in his own voice, but something in him refused to believe it. Even as he watched the false him on screen wave a gun in Mulder's face. "It's not in him. He's not like... like me. He doesn't just kill."

"I understand. That is the assignment of... your replacement. To goad Mr. Mulder sufficiently."

Alex snorted, ignoring the desperation that raised his pitch an octave. "Mulder won't believe I'd kill him, either. Try again."

Smith just nodded. "If all else fails... your replacement has orders to move things along."

Alex tore his eyes away from the screen and stared at Smith. "Move things along?"

"A suicide by Alex Krycek, in front of Fox Mulder, on tape... while not ideal, will in the long run serve the same purposes."

Alex let loose a scream of pure frustration. "You assholes! I wouldn't kill myself! After what I've gone through to stay alive?! What kind of an idiot-" He broke off, refocusing on the screen as the words the other him was saying began to make their way into his brain. "What the fuck did you tell him to say? What is he going on about! I sound like a fucking retard!"

Smith had the grace to look chagrined as he redirected his own attention to the screen. "Ahem. Yes. We know. We were... pressed for time. We heard of the plans to kil-" He stopped short, glanced at Alex, began again. "We were working in constricted circumstances, and did not have a great deal of you on tape. We knew holding you for an extended period of time was not likely to be feasible, and we knew that we could not presume that you would cooperate by helping our operative to... learn his lines, so to speak. He was forced to... improvise."

Alex listened in horror as the second Alex babbled some nonsense about Mulder knowing too much, about the corruption going all the way to the top of the FBI. "Oh yeah! That makes him way too dangerous. Fuck, he's only known it for how many fucking years now?! Yeah, you guys are smooth."

Smith winced. "I believe he may be nervous."

The onscreen Alex spoke again. "BROTHER?" Alex snorted so hard he ended up in a coughing fit. The last thing he thought of Mulder as was a brother.

Smith waved an annoyed hand at Alex. "He's doing the best he can under the circumstances."

"Yeah, maybe he'll annoy Mulder into killing me." At this rate, Alex figured the damn alien was going to have to go for the suicide shot, which would really piss him off. Lovely last impression to leave with Mulder.

Fuck. Mulder.

He blinked at the screen, staring at Mulder. Mulder was going to believe he was dead. If things went as Smith intended, Mulder was going to believe he'd killed Alex. His own mind shied again. He didn't want to think... didn't want to believe that Mulder would do it. But even if the alien gave up and turned the gun on himself, Mulder would think he was dead.

As if he really cares? a little voice inside his head whispered. He's probably believed you dead about three times so far. But this time... this time he'd have the proof of his own eyes.

Alex was trying to digest this, when the shot from the completely wrong direction spun his onscreen self, and took them all by surprise.

pov change

Walter's jaw clenched tighter... tight enough that he thought he could hear a tooth crack. He'd just shot Alex Krycek. Jesus Christ. He'd shot Alex.

He watched Krycek stagger and turn toward him, spouting more nonsense about shooting Mulder. As if he'd actually do it. Walter groaned inwardly. This was going all too well for the Consortium. Of course it looked like a perfectly reasonable shooting... Alex was threatening Mulder, Walter was shooting in defense of his agent. No one but Walter would know, looking at the tape, that Krycek never would have gone through with it. Walter would stake his own life on Krycek's inability to kill Mulder.

Until Spender's comments just now, he wouldn't have assumed Krycek would have the same problem killing him, but perhaps...

To top it off, Krycek was babbling like a madman, looking like the proverbial loose canon everyone assumed him to be. Walter had heard a lot from the man over the years, but he'd never heard him sound so disjointed, so... bizarre. Was he sick? He looked a little off, and hell, for him to be threatening Mulder, for whatever reason-

And so soon after helping them with Scully's getaway... it just didn't make sense.

His thoughts stopped as the man on screen shot Alex again... in the leg. Krycek fell to his knees. Walter's hands curled on the chair arms, gripping them so tightly his palms would hurt, if he could spare the attention to notice them. Mulder stood and stared at the proceedings, oddly silent, totally expressionless. What was up with him? This was so wrong... all so wrong.

Come on, Mulder! Step in, do something, anything! You know this isn't like me... how can you think this is me? I know you don't want him dead anymore than he wants you dead... no matter what you say. Don't just STAND there. You've always got some totally unpredictable stupid move up your sleeve... now is the time if there ever was one. DO SOMETHING.

He watched his doppelganger walk closer with a closed expression that he couldn't even say didn't look like him. He'd seen it on his own face. He knew what it felt like from the inside to let that hard, cold mask slip down. Sharon used to hate it. She would just throw up her hands and leave the room. He used that expression with Krycek a lot, actually.

Yes, Alex would most definitely believe this was him.

The gun wasn't wavering. The roaring in Walter's ears drowned out whatever was being said in the garage. He was actually going to do it. And Alex would simply believe he'd finally pushed too hard, pressed the nano-button one too many times, causing Skinner to snap. He would die believing Walter Skinner could shoot him, like this, not in self defense, but in cold, premeditated murder.

Walter felt something in his chest break as the Skinner on screen shot a third time, shot a wounded, fallen man who was obviously no longer a threat, square in the forehead. He closed his eyes, unable to watch anymore. The words were back, he could hear again... he heard his own voice telling Mulder that he would take care of the body.

The body.

The body.

Alex Krycek's body. Lifeless, murdered body. He wondered where his double would take it. How he would dispose of it. Wondered if it would be too telling if he asked where he could find it. Wondered if Spender would even bother to tell him, if he did ask. Wondered why he even wanted to know.

He heard a completely emotionless Mulder get back in his car and leave. He finally opened his eyes, but couldn't make himself focus on the screen. Why was Mulder so nonreactive, so flat and absent? Did he approve, despite what Walter thought? Was he just shocked that Walter Skinner could... would... shoot a man, even Alex Krycek who had given them all provocation at one time or another, in cold blood? Why hadn't Mulder done something to stop him... after the first shot? The second? How had Mulder let this happen...

How had he let this happen.

Why the hell was he so upset by it? He should be focusing on keeping Scully safe. Checking in on the status of the regenerating Billy Miles and keeping the freak far away from Scully and her baby. That's what was important.

Not one dead ex-Consortium assassin. Not one murdered double-crossing triple agent.

Not one beautiful young man Walter had always wanted to save, and wondered to this day if he could have helped, should have helped, back when it still counted. When it mattered.

No, Alex Krycek and his ignominious death just weren't important.

Except to the man who would be haunted for the rest of his life by the image of shooting him.

pov change

Mulder could barely breathe. Skinner's appearance had shifted the balance unpredictably, and suddenly it wasn't about whether the bounty hunter wearing his face would kill Alex. Suddenly it looked to be about who would kill Alex first.

Who was this man? When Skinner first shot, and wounded Alex, Mulder had felt a thrill of hope. How could the fake Mulder kill Alex now, with his boss standing there having disabled the man? Surely Alex would be arrested, or something... surely the fake Mulder would need to play it cool, back off, wait for another opportunity. Which gave him time to think, time to plan, time to get out of here... wherever here was.

But when Skinner shot again, Mulder felt a pain in his chest as if the bullet hit him instead. He watched Alex fall to his knees, watched the fake Mulder just stand there like a useless lump, not even responding.

He'd known Walter Skinner had been pushed about as far as a man could be pushed. He knew about the compromised position Skinner was in, knew about Krycek's little black box. And yet, as he watched Skinner sight down that final shot, he felt as if he knew nothing at all. Certainly didn't know Skinner.

Who was this man...

Mulder tried to force his lungs to work, but it was as if his body had gone into a state of shock. His brain denied everything it was seeing... Skinner did not kill Alex. Skinner did not just shoot Alex in the head. Skinner didn't... wouldn't do that.

He wouldn't.

Except he did.

And the hyperventilation started again.

Krycek. Dead. Skinner, telling that fake Mulder to go, he'd take care of the body. He heard the words and watched himself get back in the car and just. Couldn't. Breathe.

"That was interesting," the bounty hunter in the room murmured, eyes still on the screen. "Unexpected. Still, effective." He watched until the car drove away, then switched off the screen and walked to the table Mulder lay on, staring down at him dispassionately. "When our operative arrives back here, you will be released. We have no further need of you and we do not wish to arouse suspicion by having our operative function as you any longer than necessary."

Mulder stared up at the bounty hunter and wondered if the thing could see that he was dying of hypoxia. Figured it wouldn't care, even if it did recognize the signs. Wondered when he'd become so fixated on the idea that Alex Krycek needed to be alive and well and functioning somewhere in the subterranean world he inhabited. When had Alex Krycek's survival come to outweigh his own trust and concern for Walter Skinner, a man who had proved himself an ally and supporter numerous times over the years.

How could he be lying here never wanting to lay eyes on Skinner again, because the man had KILLED Alex Krycek.

Killed. Alex. His brain still tried to reject the words, but they were sinking in, slowly. Repetition alone made it harder to deny. Alex was dead. He would never again show up to mutter half-understood hints. He would never again slip from the shadows and threaten Mulder with a gun he'd never actually use. Never again turn up when least expected, to make Mulder's adrenaline pump and heart race and... emotions swirl and tumble and go berserk.

Gone. Dead and gone. At Walter Skinner's hand.

The bounty hunter walked to the door and left. He'd continued to speak, but Mulder realized as he left that he'd tuned the alien out completely, and had no idea what he'd said after the 'you're no longer needed'. He realized he must be breathing if he was still conscious.

Still. It felt as though no air was getting through to his lungs. His chest felt paralyzed. His heart, heavy and solid, as if it had stopped pumping and just lay there, curling in on itself and going dormant.

Something... somewhere inside... died. He couldn't define it, couldn't even fully conceptualize it.

All he knew was that it was gone.

pov change

Alex stared silently at the still screen. He hadn't taken his eyes away once. Hadn't blinked, hadn't responded, hadn't reacted in any way.

Not since the first shot from Walter Skinner's gun.

He'd watched with increasing detachment as the bullets hit. As Mulder stood by and watched, totally emotionless. As Skinner killed him.

Walter Skinner. Killed him.

Well, you killed him. This makes you even, I suppose. The hysterical thought bubbled through his brain, but didn't make it even close to his tongue. In fact, everything was growing quieter, stiller. His breathing. His thoughts.

After all, he was a dead man.

Killed. By Walter Skinner. While Mulder stood there and watched. The two of them, talking about taking care of the body like they were rolling up a dirty rug. Removing a piece of broken office furniture.

Taking out the trash.

The screen had long ago stopped flickering. Smith and the others were silent. In fact, he realized, Smith was the only one still present. He stared at the blue screen and ignored the man.

He shouldn't be surprised, he tried to reason with himself. After all, Walter certainly had reason. He didn't know all the ins and outs of how Alex had twisted and contorted himself to keep Skinner alive... he only knew what he saw. Only knew that Alex held the power of life and death, agony or relief, in the palm of his hand.

Surely enough reason to kill him. In cold blood. Three... fucking... shots. Two to wound, the third killing shot completely unnecessary from a law enforcement perspective. But hey, this was Alex Krycek, scum of the earth, all around scapegoat and bad guy. Let's just rid the world and do everyone a favor.

Surely, he couldn't blame Skinner for thinking that.

"Alex."

And why would Mulder care, why would Mulder show any reaction to his death... to his murder. After all, he was just the man who'd made Mulder's life miserable... betrayed him, killed his father, helped with the Scully abduction... saved his fucking life when all Scully could do for him was give him worthless Earth antivirals.

Neither one of them knew him at all. How could they be blamed for wanting him dead. For taking the matter into their own hands. For not mourning his passing. For shooting him down like a rabid animal.

They didn't kill me. They didn't. I'm sitting right here. I'm alive, and they didn't kill me. I'm not dead. The words had no power though, no power against that blank look on Mulder's face as he'd watched what he must have believed to be Alex Krycek die. No power against that hate and cold precision in Walter Skinner's eyes, as he shot to kill the being he believed to be Alex Krycek.

He wasn't dead. But they did kill him.

"Alex?"

Somehow he'd always believed he'd have the time, the opportunity, to explain. To tell them why he'd done what he'd done, the way he'd done it. Had hoped he'd be able to buy their willingness to listen with real help, real cooperation, against the Colonists and the Consortium together. He couldn't just leap over to their side... how could he continue to function effectively? Those who operated within the law were so... constrained. He couldn't be constrained, not in this fight.

But eventually... eventually he'd believed he could try to get them to understand. He'd always known it was likely a lost cause, but he'd thought that preventing Colonization might offer some real wiggle room. So they'd never be friends. So he'd never have the... friendship of either of them. To say nothing of anything else. He told himself repeatedly that was alright, because they were different kinds of people, and it would be enough to just see the disintegration of the ever-present hate, the disdain, the disgust. It would be enough.

And no, it wouldn't be enough, it would never be enough, but it was a pretty lie he could tell himself and mostly believe, and it got him through some bad times and some long nights and now it was gone. Just... gone.

They'd killed him. Walter Skinner fired the gun, and Mulder stood there and watched. Dead. Dead dead dead. He was well and truly dead.

"Alex. Please."

A hand touched his arm, and he stared at it, uncomprehending. It brought him back into his body and he didn't want to be there. His throat felt blocked, his chest hurt, his eyes itched, his jaw was sore... every muscle was tense and his very bones ached with the knowledge coursing through him. Someone was touching him and he wasn't bound to the chair, which seemed odd for some reason. He could move his arm, his legs.

He shifted, but didn't rise.

"Alex, please believe me. If there were any other way."

His whole chest burned. Every breath in and out, every beat of his heart. His ribcage felt like it was being sawed open.

"We would not have done anything so drastic as provoking this, were it not essential for the Rebellion. We must have you solidly on our side, and we must have all others believing you completely out of the way and beyond reach. This provides you with a great deal more safety. We do not want you to come to harm."

A laugh bubbled in his chest, hysterical and out of control. No harm? No harm. It died before it gained breath, and he stared at the man speaking earnestly at him. Even as he heard the words, he could feel the familiar distance kicking in, feel the numbing fog spreading. The rising hysteria must have sent out the emergency signal.

Move forward, at all cost. Keep breathing, and make it through. If survival meant moving past whatever life threw at him, he supposed the same could be said for death.

Just keep breathing. Even if it meant feeling like he was breathing broken glass.

"There were already plans in motion to remove you permanently. We saw this as an opportunity. An opportunity for both you, and us. A mutually beneficial arrangement. You maintain your life, your role in the fight. You attain your goal of preventing Colonization, and everyone believes you dead so they stop attempting to kill you. You become more effective. We gain an experienced operative of the highest caliber, with more insight on the human portion of our enemy than we could ever hope to have. You will be able to pass information to Mr. Mulder and Mr. Skinner without them suspecting it comes from you, so it will be more readily received and acted upon. Anyone knowing of your 'death' will not for one moment suspect that even if you somehow survived, you would ever cooperate with these men. It is an ideal arrangement. You may now operate effectively invisible, and the Rebels are ready, finally, to accept active human alliance. Your former mentor wished this, before he was killed and the Rebels were scared off of human alliance. You will be continuing his work. The work he wished you to do."

Blandings used to talk about how Alex and Mulder-

Mulder stood there and watched him shoot me.

-together would be a force to be reckoned with, and he used to strategize how to bridge the gap between them. So much for that aspect of the plan. The glass crystals in his lungs burned and tore. One breath in, one breath out.

"Alex, I know you are hurting, and I know you likely blame us. I am counting on your ability to understand your former associates and know that your life was in immediate danger. Counting on your ability to see the larger picture, to see clearly and look to the long term. I am also counting on your well-known ability to sacrifice for the larger goal."

Of course. Sacrifice. He knew from sacrifice. So what else was new. At the moment he was sacrificing his lung tissue with every intake of air, but he kept doing it, didn't he?

"Will you work with us, to defeat the Consortium, to defeat the Colonists? They, who are the true enemy, the ones at true fault for the travesty you witnessed today. Will you help us destroy them?"

Destruction... yes, destruction sounded good. And the old boy did in fact have a point. Alex laid the entire debacle that was his 'relationship' with both Mulder and Skinner-

Walter Skinner shot me.

-at the feet of the fucking organization that had birthed him. When all else failed, there was always destruction.

And it could definitely be said that today was a big fucking exercise in watching all else fail.

"Will you?"

Alex met Jeremiah's eyes and nodded. "Why not." He heard the flat, dead edge in his own voice, saw the flash of worry in Jeremiah's face. A dead voice for a dead man. What could be more appropriate?

Jeremiah's hand squeezed on his forearm, and his answering voice was passionate. "You will not regret this, Alex Krycek."

Alex's eyes flickered back to the blue screen. He took one more lung-shredding breath before speaking. "Lead on, Mr. Smith. I have more important things to regret than helping prevent an alien invasion."

 

Seven Months Later

M

ulder shifted Will to his other arm and rocked him gently, using his right hand to swipe the levitating rattle out of midair. He winced as Will let out another wail. "C'mon baby, I know I'm not your first choice, but mommy's only gone for a couple hours. She and Uncle John will be back before you know it." Dangling the colorful plastic keys in Will's face, he sighed as the baby zeroed in on them and they skyrocketed out of his hand.

"Well. I can see it's going to be private school for you, mister." Lifting the baby with both hands under the little arms, long fingers curling up toward the back of the fragile head, Mulder lifted him until they were eye to eye. "Somehow, I just don't see us slipping you past the average first grade teacher, if you're constantly making the chalk fly across the room. They'll have you in for an exorcism before we can say 'alien genetic material'."

Baby Will stared down at his father, lower lip quivering as if about to let loose with another loud protest against the unfairness of a world that took his mother out of his sight for a two hour period of time. Mulder heard something fall behind him, with the ominous crash of breaking glass. He knew the fits of levitation got worse, or more pronounced, rather, whenever Will got upset. If he wanted Scully's house to be anywhere near in one piece when she got back, he had to get the kid calmed down some.

The shrill of his cell phone didn't help, and sure enough the crying started again. Resting Will against his shoulder and reaching out with a mad grab for the stuffed purple bunny flying off the couch and at his head, he juggled it for a moment, then dropped it to answer the phone on the eighth ring.

"Yeah, Mulder," he managed, jouncing the baby slightly as he'd seen Scully do numerous times, with miraculous results. Hell, even Doggett seemed to be able to quiet the kid with a little rocking. It was just Mulder who never got anything but more shrieks for his trouble.

"Mulder? Everything... okay, there?" Skinner's voice sounded dubious in his ear.

"Uh, yeah, fine."

"Is that Will with you?"

"Yes, I'm at Scully's place, watching the kid. She and Doggett are out to dinner."

"Ah ha. Good, good." And Skinner did sound pleased. Mulder knew he'd had no little to do with urging Doggett to get off his ass and do something about his infatuation with Scully. While Mulder had tried to remain completely out of the romantic loop, he knew Skinner had been actively playing Cupid, finding ways to assign Scully and Doggett to spend more time together, and working on Doggett almost nonstop.

"Yeah, great," Mulder enthused sarcastically, flopping onto the couch and wincing again as Will shrieked even louder. Shifting the baby to rest in the curve of his arm, he stared down at the squirming little bundle that looked for all the world like he was trying to buck himself right out of Mulder's grip and fly off across the room like the keys and the bunny... and the weird little squeaking weasel-thing that had been an anonymous present from his new source, and that was now winging straight for them from its previous hiding place under the coffee table.

Ducking the projectile weasel, which hit the wall over the couch with a loud SQUEAK!, Mulder tried to concentrate on Skinner's voice.

"You're not jealous, surely? You both have said often enough that it's not like that between you-"

"No, I'm not jealous," Mulder snapped, although truthfully there was some level of jealousy involved, since a Doggett-enamored Scully spent more time riding around in the man's pickup truck than working with Mulder. Jealous in the way a teenage boy felt jealousy for his best female friend, who was suddenly entering that strange and confusing world of 'romance' while he himself was still happily playing baseball and video games. He sighed, wondering what that said about himself.

Anyway, of course he was happy if Scully was happy. And Doggett... hell, she could do a lot worse. He gentled his voice when he spoke again. "No, of course not. I'm just... well, when Scully goes out she's got this idea now that she needs to be making sure Will is getting bonding time with me." He looked down at the squalling baby in confusion. "I think she's getting concerned about the way he screams every time I enter the room."

"I see. So, she goes on a date, and you have an evening with the baby. I think I understand."

The thinly disguised amusement in Skinner's tone broadcast loud and clear, and was not appreciated. Mulder's eyes narrowed. "What can I do for you, sir?" he asked coolly.

"Oh, right. Sorry... I just got another mysterious package and I knew you'd want a look at it immediately. I didn't realize you had the boy though. It can wait."

Mulder sat up straight on the couch, alert and focused. Will went quiet, as if startled by the movement. "No, no... I'd like to see the material immediately. If you don't mind if I bring him, I can be there in..." he glanced at his watch. Get together the diaper bag, deal with the parental torture device known as the car seat... drive time. "Half an hour?"

"Ah, I don't know if that's a good idea, Mulder. Would Scully want you to be driving Will out on a work call?"

"You and I will both be there. He's safer with us than anywhere else."

"True, but... still. I'd feel better if I came there." He hesitated, then cleared his throat. "If that's... alright?"

Mulder understood the hesitation. Things had been strained between them for the past seven months, five days, and counting. Ever since that night, in the parking garage. Mulder swallowed. He preferred to meet with Skinner with the buffering presence of someone else. Scully, Doggett, anyone. He looked down at the oddly quiet baby. You'll have to do, kiddo. "Sure. Sure, it's fine. Come on over as soon as you can get here." He hung up without saying goodbye.

Settling back into the couch, he cradled Will against his chest. A tiny baby hand whacked at his chin. He dropped his head forward and kissed the little fist, meeting the baby's eyes. "Life sucks sometimes, kid. Sorry to have to break that to you, but better you know upfront, I think."

Will batted at his chin again, and something soft thumped him in the side of the head, landing half on Will and half on his lap. He glanced at it and saw the weasel thing. Lifting it up, he nuzzled it next to Will. "Want your weasel? You like that thing, don't you. Weird baby toy if you ask me." He squeaked it once and smiled at the intent baby. One thing could be said for the little bugger... he was a hell of a distraction. "You have got the weirdest eyes, kid. I wonder if I looked like that as a baby. No wonder I freaked my parents out."

Will pressed closer, squeezing the weasel between his body and his father's.

W

alter lifted his hand, then hesitated. Oh for Christ's sake, this is asinine. He brought his hand down in a sharp, rapping knock. He wasn't going to stand out here on the porch like he was scared to go talk to one of his own agents. He absolutely wasn't. That was absurd.

Just because they'd never talked about the night he'd ostensibly killed Alex Krycek. Just because every interaction since that time had been tense and uneasy, stilted, with little eye contact.

They were both avoiding the subject. Using other people to avoid being in a position where it might come up. Acting as though nothing happened. It was stupid. They should just talk about it, and Skinner could explain that it hadn't been him. Except... Mulder hadn't exactly done anything to stop the alien, and as much as he himself questioned Mulder's cold behavior that night, the last thing Mulder needed was more guilt for another death he could have? Should have? Didn't? prevent.

And then there was the other eventuality. That Mulder would just stare at him and say something like "why do you care that the bastard ended up dead?"

That was a conversation Walter really didn't want to have, and especially did not want to have with Mulder. He had it with himself in his dreams every night.

He heard the healthy cry of Will coming closer and closer to the door, then it opened and a tired, frazzled Mulder waved him inside.

"Hey. Bring it on. Sorry about the noise. He quieted down for a while at the end of your call, but he started right up again. He really doesn't like to be away from mom."

Walter forced a smile and didn't say the obvious... that while it was true, Will didn't like to be without Scully, he usually settled down with other watchers. John, Maggie Scully, Walter himself. Only Mulder seemed unable to calm or quiet his own son. Walter waved the fat parcel at Mulder and held out his hands. "Want to trade? I'll take him for a few minutes and you can get a look at this."

Mulder looked only too relieved at the offer. He eased Will over to Skinner, and fell on the parcel greedily, turning and striding to the living room with it. Walter cradled the baby like a pro, and Will gave one more snuffling sob, then looked up at Walter with big eyes. Mulder-eyes.

Walter sighed. They may not have all the answers, and Scully would only consent to a certain amount of testing on her son, but it was obvious he was genetically Mulder's. If the eyes and the weird, focused way he had of staring at everything didn't give it away, the flying objects would have. Scully had full custody and as far as Mulder was concerned, Will was hers through and through, but you couldn't look at the kid and not see the Mulder in him. Which made the constant squalling in Mulder's presence even odder.

He checked the boy's diaper - Mulder had a disconcerting tendency to forget the basics in life - then moved into the living room. Mulder already had his glasses on and was pouring over the documents and maps. He'd flipped open his laptop and was making notes on it while he read. "This is great," he said, without even looking up.

"I agree. And I only skimmed it. Still no sense of who this Xealot guy... or woman... is?"

"None." This pulled Mulder's attention away from the papers, and he looked up with a vexed expression. "I've tried everything. I've still got the Gunmen on it. Nothing. He's got the Rebels helping him cloak his identity for sure. I've pushed Jeremiah every way I can think of... nothing. He won't budge. And when I push on Xealot directly, he just keeps saying it's too dangerous to be in real contact, or to give us any more information on him. I do believe it's a man though... just something about him, about the way he communicates. Maybe it's the old profiling kicking in, although he's not giving us much to profile. His screen name... the tone of his communications." Mulder gave a frustrated sigh and forced his hands back through his hair. "Spelling zealot with an 'X'... could be an indication of a connection with my old source X. There was definitely a connection between Deep Throat and X." He pushed his glasses up to pinch the bridge of his nose. "Or possibly-"

"Or possibly it's a connection to the X Files, and he's another loyal follower of yours. Or maybe he just spends too much time on the internet." Walter sighed and shrugged, mindful of Will in his arms. "I suppose it doesn't matter in the end, as long as the information is good. And everything has proved out so far. He's obviously in a dangerous position between the Consortium and the Rebels. Hell, if I didn't know better, I'd-" He stopped himself just in time. An awkward silence descended on the room. He could have kicked himself. Apparently, his subconscious still thought bringing the issue up was a good idea. But it wasn't.

Because unfortunately, he did know better. The man who would have been the obvious choice for this 'source' was dead. Dead and buried. Or incinerated, or something. The alien had taken care of the body disposal before returning, before Spender had released Skinner with the smooth promise of "we'll be in touch."

Interesting, that they hadn't been in touch in the one way Walter most expected. No nanocyte attacks had occurred since Krycek's death. And Mulder and company were stirring up enough dust and dirtdevils that if it had been an option, Walter was quite sure it would have been exercised. Had Krycek been the only one who could control Walter's nanos? Had Spender known that when he'd had Alex killed?

Walter allowed himself the internal pleasure of hoping Spender had no idea, and only found out afterward. It was small, but seemed a fitting way to get a little back for Alex.

"Anyway," he finally said roughly, "doesn't matter. He's got good information."

"Yeah," Mulder finally replied, though his eyes were fixed firmly back on the papers and blue prints. "I just wish we had some firmer sense of whether or not we could offer protection of some sort. He's taking a lot of risk, and if he oversteps, goes too far... that's it for him. I've watched too many informants die."

The words fell like lead sinkers into the room. Given the events with Deep Throat and X, Walter didn't know that Mulder even included Alex in that category. But the very fact that he could be on the list, that Mulder had watched him die, that they both were thinking it... And would the invisible elephant in the black leather jacket PLEASE exit the room anytime now?

"Anyway," Mulder used Walter's method of breaking the tense silence, "I'm just not sure how comfortable I feel about the fact that he sends Scully baby presents along with all this information." Mulder's eyes followed the stuffed weasel that was again taking to the air.

Walter lowered himself into a chair and settled William on his lap. He caught the levitating squeaky weasel and handed it to the baby, who proceeded to bounce his fist off of it and make gurgling noises. "I've told you before. I think... maybe he's trying to indicate he can be trusted."

"Mmm." Mulder made another entry into his computer, then suddenly looked up and focused on Will. His lips pulled tight and his jaw jutted mulishly. "And how the hell do you do that?" Walter raised an eyebrow. "He's... quiet."

"Oh... ah...," Walter searched his mind frantically for an escape, an excuse. "I don't... I'm not..."

"Forget it," Mulder snapped, averting his eyes again and picking up the documents in front of him with enough force that one of them ripped. "Scully and John get the same landed-fish look whenever they rescue him from me, too. I don't know why Scully is so dead-set on torturing the poor kid when he obviously can't stand being around me."

Walter struggled to find an appropriate response, despite Mulder's affected unconcern. He knew it hurt Mulder more than he let on that his son had such a strange reaction to him. Walter's own paternal instincts, by no means absent despite his lack of biological children, came out in spades around Will. He responded to him with the natural tenderness and care of a born father. He knew how hard it was for him to watch Mulder try to be with the child... he could only imagine how difficult it was for Scully. Suddenly, her idea of having Mulder spend time with him while she was out made a lot more sense.

"Mulder, it's not... sometimes kids are funny that way. I can't explain it, I don't know that anyone can. It might be something as simple as you get slightly nervous around Will, and he senses that."

Mulder looked up long enough to send a piercing glare his way. "He responds better to Langly than he does to me. And you've seen how nervous Langly is around him. Let's just drop it. You know, the way I'm reading this, there's some basic information here that needs to be acted on sooner rather than later. We need to put a plan in place, get the details back to our source and see if the Rebels will provide the usual back up and assistance." He dove back into the papers with the tenacity that was taking the Consortium apart bit by bit, and tripping up the Colonists everywhere they tried to expand their plans.

Walter debated, then finally spoke softly. "For what it's worth, Mulder, I think Scully has the right idea. Keep spending time with him, keep trying. He just needs to get used to you. Look at it this way... Dana, me, John... he was hearing all of us in the womb. You didn't have that opportunity. Give it time."

"Absolutely." Mulder nodded, but Walter wondered if he even heard a word he said. "For now, though, let's talk about time tables. If we can put together a basic strike force in the next two days, we could get back to them and propose full on attack. Actually go in and take this place out. With Rebel back up, we could be talking about a major hit."

Walter sat silently for a moment, but as the minutes ticked by and Mulder didn't even look up, he gave up. With the way things have been between you for the past seven months, why the hell would you expect him to want to talk to you about his son. "You realize what you're talking about is going to take things to the next level. The very public next level."

Mulder nodded, still without looking at Walter. "It's time. They think so too, or they wouldn't be giving us information this complete."

Walter had thought the same thing when he'd skimmed over the latest delivery. "Let's talk to Dana and John when they get back." He hoped they'd either arrive very soon, or that Mulder would remain engrossed in the documents until they did. He was perfectly happy to quiet Will and avoid the minefield of communication with Mulder.

Somehow, he suspected Mulder would oblige him in his efforts to avoid conversation.

Y

ou were correct. They want to move on a full attack, just as we were going to ask of them."

Alex snorted as he turned in his chair. "Why am I not surprised. Mulder is a lot of things, but stupid isn't one of them. You get a lot further with him letting him think it's his idea than you do by asking, or worse - ordering - him to do something. Give him enough info, and he'll make the case himself, and think he's coming to you guys to convince you to do what you already wanted to do in the first place."

"I know I've said it before, and I will undoubtedly say it again. You've been an invaluable help with your knowledge of human motivations and eccentricities. Especially the particular eccentricities of these select humans." Jeremiah gave him that quiet smile of approval that made Alex's solar plexus feel warm, even though he studiously ignored the feeling every time it happened.

He swung his chair back to face his computer, shrugging. "It was my job to know these particular humans inside and out. So they're trusting the Rebels fully now?"

Jeremiah nodded in satisfaction. "They are. I believe between us we have done an admirable job of helping the Rebels to trust the correct humans, and your humans to trust in the Rebels' intentions."

"They are not my humans."

Jeremiah nodded immediately, face going serious. "Of course. I apologize."

Alex sighed and waved his hand. "Whatever." He kept his eyes on the laptop as he logged in the last few facilities targeted in the latest package delivered from Xealot into the waiting hands of the FBI. Well, into the waiting hands of the FBI crusaders, to be exact. He clicked through the menus and in seconds had a full screen overlay of the target locations, highlighted in green, on top of a world map. Already logged in red were the sites previously hit or dismantled. Black indicated the Colonists still functioning at full strength. Blue marked a site noted for a strategic weakness, next up for analysis of best approach.

He smiled grimly. For the first time, the green outnumbered the black. Coupled with the blue, it was easily a two to one ratio. "This could definitely be it." He pressed a few more keys and waited while the clusters regrouped, the colors now flagging which arm of the Consortium controlled a given project or location. If this all went as planned, the Spanish arm of the organization would be finished off completely, the Tunisian operations severely crippled, and the US holdings decimated. His grin got wider, and harder.

He started as Jeremiah's hand descended on his left shoulder. Even with the new arm they'd gifted him - as either a bribe, a form of gratitude, or perhaps just an effort to jolt him out of the funk he'd been in following his 'death' - he still didn't particularly like people touching his left side. "What?"

"You should take a break. When did you last sleep?"

Alex shrugged, still not looking away from the screen. "What need do the dead have of sleep," he murmured, though he couldn't even remember what he was quoting from or if he had the words in the right order. "Don't worry. I'm almost done. I just want to run a few numbers, see if I can work up some estimates of what sort of assets they've still got at their disposal."

He felt Jeremiah's calm presence behind him for long moments, but he didn't turn, and kept his mind carefully focused on his maps and his figures. Finally, he felt the presence recede as Jeremiah left the room. As the door shut with a quiet click, Alex's shoulders slumped and his gaze drifted from the screen to the desk his computer sat on... then to the wall. He needed to stay busy. Busy was good.

This whole Rebel Alliance thing was turning out to be alright. Destruction on a massive scale, enough to satisfy even his expansive needs. And all with rock solid backup. Once they'd managed to convince the Rebels to stop torching abductees, and instead start assisting the poor schmucks with the medical fallout of what the Colonists' had done to them, everything else had fallen into place fairly smoothly.

He just needed to stay busy. And there was more than enough work to do. He was doing better than ever, actually. Feeling good, feeling in control, in a position of power, making a real difference, pulling Their strings instead of playing the puppet. Destroying things right and left. Including the lives of anyone who'd ever made his life miserable.

Except for two of them. Their lives weren't marked for destruction, and for the most part that was fine because frankly he just preferred not to think about them at all.

Just needed to stay busy.

Stay busy, and stop buying Will Scully fucking baby presents.

Two Years Later
Early December
Thursday

A

lex stamped the snow off his boots and pushed his shoulder against the door as the key caught. Clutching his stack of mail to his chest with one hand and the leash and keys with his other, he ducked in out of the cold wind fraught with flurries. To his relief, the house still radiated warmth. He hadn't been gone long, just a quick run to the post office and then to campus to pick up his school mail that had been piling up all week since he'd come down with the flu. But with wood heat, it didn't take long to chill down even a small place like his.

Sheldon barked happily, darting into the room past his feet, and he released the leash to struggle with the door. Finally getting it shut against the persistent wind, he carried the bills and notices from the school into the kitchen and dropped them on the table, then went to chase the dog and get the leash back. Already gnawing on a rawhide bone, Sheldon looked up at the summons from his human and bounced back to Alex. Removing the leash, he tousled the puppy's head and ears, then rose to check the fire and add wood. Sheldon followed, dancing around his legs and pawing at his boots.

When he was sure the new log had caught, he eased off his leather jacket and hung it up on his way back to the kitchen. Recovering from this bug had left him getting cold way too easily. Mary had tried to convince him to stay out a few more days when he'd walked by her office to the faculty mailboxes, but he'd just shaken his head and smiled. One week out sick was more than long enough. He'd been out since the previous Wednesday, and seven days was sufficient to knock out a stupid flu.

He ignored the fine trembling in his muscles as he sank down into the chair at the kitchen table to sort through the pile of mail. Sheldon flopped at his feet and rested his chin on top of one boot.

Besides, tonight was dinner with the students. It was hardly going to be strenuous, he'd be getting better food than he made for himself at home, and he wasn't contagious anymore. And... well yes, the international dinners were one of his favorite parts about his job. From the time they sat down in the old barn that was now the dining hall, until they stood up after dessert, only Russian would be spoken. It was... fun.

He was surprised how much speaking the old language comforted him. He wouldn't have thought much about Russian would seem comforting at all, given his experiences. But for whatever reason, relaxing into conversational Russian around a dinner table with eight to ten college students was one of the highlights of his life these days.

Of course, he'd never have thought he'd be teaching college language tutorials and independent studies at a tiny little college in the hills of Vermont that claimed an entire student body of less than 240. Marlboro College had a smaller student population than the local high school's senior class. Which wasn't saying much, considering it was a Vermont high school.

There were no urban areas in Vermont. The entire state qualified as rural on the US census. He'd lived in single cities that had a higher population than this state.

Which, to his own surprise, suited him just fine. He loved the lack of people. He loved all the hills and the thick trees and the quiet. Especially when it snowed. It soothed something that was still broken and jagged inside his chest.

Up until this stupid cold-flu-bug from hell-whatever it was, he'd even loved the cold. Cold never bothered him much, although nowadays it did tend to catch up with the old aches. The new arm was a perfect copy, but it still ached right down to the bone sometimes. But apparently Russian blood would out. The aches would follow him anywhere... wet weather brought them out too, no matter the temperature. For the most part he could shake it off, and the cold felt... right. There was an edge of home to it. All the seasons here had their own pleasures and annoyances, but he loved the variety of the seasons, the distinctness of it all, along with the occasional indistinctness... the way they blended and blurred at the edges.

He'd never spent much time thinking about the outdoors and nature and the general beauty of it all. 'Nature' had always been just one more entry on a long list of impediments to be survived at one time or another. But it was almost impossible to live in Vermont and not think about it. You came face to face with it every time you walked out the door, every corner you turned. It just became part of you, like the air you breathed. He wouldn't have guessed, back in DC and New York and Hong Kong and all the other bustling city centers he'd lived in, that rural living would have any appeal at all.

Surprise, surprise.

Mostly though, he appreciated the alone-ness. The people who were around suited him, as well as how easy it was to avoid them. Rural New Englanders ran the gamut from talkers who could be counted on to pigeon-hole you at the hardware store and chew your ear off nonstop about the latest drill bits they'd bought, to the recalcitrant folks who nodded pleasantly enough but only worked up to a "hello" over the course of a couple of months. Every type of personality in between could be found somewhere, even in as small a place as Marlboro, or more accurately in Brattleboro, the 'population center' closest to the tiny town holding the tinier college.

The general level of friendliness and respect was high, though, and the level of intrusiveness, low. Despite the myriad personal quirks, he found across the board a kind of quiet deference to privacy that suited him very well. The talkers, the silent nodders, the open-minded church ladies, the aging peace activists, the loggers, the artists, the surprisingly few farmers, the predictable bevy of mechanics, the growing crop of rural intellectuals... they all steered clear of personal subjects unless you brought them up and gave a clear green light that it was an open topic.

Since Alex never brought up anything personal, and his light never moved further south than caution yellow, the unspoken New England system worked extremely well for him. With the instincts of a lifelong intelligence agent, he knew shortly after settling in here that he wasn't the only person around with A Past, and that others were taking advantage of the live-and-let-live atmosphere of Yankee politeness. He could certainly understand. Vermont was the perfect place to just up and start over. Recreate yourself, or at least the pieces of yourself that you cared about recreating.

After he'd done as requested and helped the Rebels couple up with an increasingly organized human resistance to short out the Colonist invasion, he'd found he didn't care that much about returning 'to life'. There was no one who had missed his presence, no one falsely mourning his passing, no one to be comforted by his reappearance. The only distant family he still had back in Russia had assumed him dead long before it became 'official' and he wasn't of a mind to disabuse them. He was hardly going to come back to life to serve time for old crimes still on someone's books.

So the Rebels had offered to place him, and assist him with a new beginning. He'd burned through a fair amount of his own stolen resources during the war, and other holdings had been lost to the red tape of seized Consortium property and frozen accounts. He found himself unwilling to expose his continued existence for the slim chances of laying claim to ill-gotten gains. That cut off retiring to his own private island. He needed some level of financial support, and that meant taking on a job. He considered pursuing the island thing anyway, and becoming a bartender now that he had both arms. But the thought of dealing with drunk people all night every night made him slightly ill.

Besides, the tropical sun wasn't really his thing. He burned. For a vacation, sitting around with a strong, sweet drink with an umbrella in it? Absolutely. To live? Maybe when he was in his sixties, now that it looked like he might actually make it that far.

He spent a month or two floundering, ticking through increasingly improbable job options in his head. He hung about on a space ship or slept on Jeremiah's couch, trying to figure out what he could do, which of those skills might actually be legal, and how they might apply to a form of work that wouldn't make him crazy inside two months. In the end, he finally consented to sitting down to a career analysis with the placid alien who never treated him like what he was - the houseguest from hell.

It wasn't as horrible as he'd expected, and afterward he was a little embarrassed he'd resisted it so long. Jeremiah asked him a number of straightforward, basic questions, then suggested an even broader number of options. Equally embarrassing was the realization that he could have done it all for himself... it was just that his brain felt shell-shocked and unable to figure out where to realistically start. But Smith was remarkably nonjudgmental and it turned out that having been in the Social Security administration as long as he had meant that he was also an expert forger of all sorts of documents.

Aleksander Karalov was soon applying for an adjunct language position at World Learning, also known by its older title of the School for International Training, in sleepy little Brattleboro, Vermont. The Masters degree institution attracted high-level international students for a variety of short-term programs and fellowships, and graduated their own students with degrees in international business, non-governmental organizational management, and foreign policy. Lastly, they also collaborated with an unusual little liberal arts school - Marlboro College - on their undergraduate World Studies Program. Students could access classes at both institutions, rely on World Learning's connections to secure semesters abroad and well-placed international internships, and earn their Bachelor's from Marlboro in the process. His work at World Learning brought him into contact with students at both institutions, teaching language and translation skills, sometimes with Russian and Eastern European students of all ages on English, and sometimes with US students on Russian and a few of the more esoteric languages he knew well enough to teach the basics.

Before the year was out Alex had unexpectedly found a home in the smaller, more eccentric Marlboro College, where the average laid-back student spent five years attaining a Bachelor's, rather than racing through a Master's program in ten months with the rest of the high-powered and driven international students at World Learning. On the whole, the Marlboro students were younger and dreamier. They were a thoughtful, often artistic, and sometimes downright bizarre bunch. Not to mention highly politicized and socially conscious. It was an odd but enticing atmosphere that Alex found equal parts amusingly naïve and surprisingly well-connected with the broader world of movers and shakers in world politics and the environmental and artistic fields.

More so, something about the pace, the setting - and admittedly, that eccentricity - of the school reached out and caught him, and without even realizing it he was "collecting" Marlboro students from both in and outside the World Studies Program circles, and unknowingly luring them to Russian studies. Only afterward did he find out from grinning colleagues that adjunct faculty at Marlboro often came about in that exact manner... their personalities or their specialties made them popular, word got around, and suddenly there was increasing "demand" for their classes among the students, leading the administration to offer them more hours and longer term appointments. Whereby they met more students, and became even more popular, increasing demand further... and the cycle continued.

Worked for him. He still did an occasional class or independent study with World Learning, acted as translator/tutor for occasional groups of Eastern European professionals, and did the occasional lecture on Russia and the politics and societies of Eastern Europe. But now Marlboro College signed his paycheck, and he did the lion's share of his work for Marlboro, with small groups of students or individuals on specific, tailored projects, as the Marlboro degree program required.

It was the least amount of work he'd ever done to make a living, and the most enjoyable. He got paid, granted not much but enough, for hanging out with intelligent people, speaking his native tongue, exercising his natural facility for languages, and talking about topics that interested him and that he knew inside and out. On the side, he was getting a chance to brush up on his own Chinese and learn... of all things... pottery.

And he didn't even have to kill anyone. Major benefit.

Vermont worked for him. Speaking Russian, playing with clay, walking in the Vermont woods all worked for him. Living in a little log house with wood stoves worked for him. He felt calmer, more focused, and if he still had nightmares... well, didn't everyone? Settled. Content. It was a new and different feeling and slowly, over the months, it grew on him. Grew on him enough that when he heard the local Humane Society had a surfeit of puppies suddenly come in, he'd actually dropped by.

You didn't get a dog unless you were settled.

He hadn't even realized he'd made the decision to stop. One minute he was driving up Route 30 to visit the gourmet chocolate shop, the next he was almost a mile past the chocolate shop, parked in the Humane Society lot. He sat in the car for too long, then finally got out and went in. Hell, he was already there. Might as well look at the puppies.

Famous. Last. Words.

All in all, Sheldon had been a damn good idea. He wasn't sure how the puppy felt about being named after a totally psycho CIA agent, but Alex had enjoyed the movie and found the character too damn amusing to resist, and Sheldon did have black fur, after all.

He sneezed as he sliced open the various envelopes in his mail, and cursed under his breath, hoping it didn't herald a resurgence of the bug that wouldn't die. Maybe Mary was right and he should take another day or two. He could call her, and she would get word to the students. He smiled as he opened his cable bill. Interesting how that cost was always so low and yet he got such perfect reception for such a wide variety of channels.

Upon finding him a secluded new home in the hills, the Rebels had made a few... technological improvements to his facilities that would ensure his comfort. He had the only cell phone for miles around that actually got reception in Marlboro, and even more amazing, out on Route 30. He knew the luxuries came with a silent price tag... they allowed the Rebels a direct line to him. But in two years they'd only contacted him three times, not counting Jeremiah's occasional visits, and he couldn't say he really minded.

Occasionally it was kind of nice to talk with beings who knew something of his past life, his experiences.

Not that he was lonely or anything.

Shuffling the bills into a pile he noted that, as usual, they made up the only actual correspondence he received. Well, that and the statements on his investments. He sighed and stifled another sneeze before it could explode. What do you want, letters from old friends? Too late. They're all dead. And they weren't friends anyway. Inevitably his thoughts turned briefly to Blandings, but he forced his mind away from the man and rifled through the contents of his school mailbox.

Announcements and more announcements. More pleas from the business office and the registrar to actually turn materials in on time, especially as the fall semester was coming to a close in a few days time. Good luck, sweeties. The poor people in the administration end of things paid the price for the laid-back atmosphere the college enjoyed. A couple notes from students found their way in among the memos. He smiled as he slit open a final envelope and found a get well card. Lara... he could tell by the handwriting, before he even got to the signature.

Well, that was just... sweet. He found his cheeks heating with embarrassment at his own pleasure. But his hand wouldn't... quite... let the card drop into the pile of trash that would become fodder for the wood stove. He gave up and stood it on the table, where the bright, cheery cartoon sun and little bear in sunglasses smiled at him.

Shaking his head at his own foolishness, he picked up the last of his mail - the Brattleboro Reformer. Sliding the rubber band off the rolled newspaper, he glanced at the visible part - the top half of the front page. And felt an unforgiving fist slam into his stomach.

Mulder stared back from a large photo, above the fold.

He winced and closed his eyes. Deep breath. One... two... three. Again. Sheldon woofed from the floor at his feet, suddenly alert. The puppy was nothing if not tuned in to Alex's emotional state.

He'd followed the news religiously for about a month after things had exploded, but then he'd had to stop. It just made him crazy, constantly reading about Mulder, and sometimes Skinner. Staying in contact with them for the aliens had been bad enough, but he'd at least had the distraction of keeping his identity completely cloaked, and picking and choosing what information should go where, at what time. The distraction of constantly needing to utilize his knowledge of both their personalities and psychological quirks and motivations, and finagling how those factors would fit with the psychology of the Rebels. It was a weird balancing act, and he often ended up feeling like some demented puppeteer, he and Jeremiah both. Manipulating all the parties, telling each side what they needed to hear in order to work effectively with the other.

It was enough to get him through. Hell, sometimes it was even borderline enjoyable. Manipulation was fun, and God knew he was good at it, if he could close himself off enough and just play the game.

But then it took off on its own, came to the logical successful conclusion, and that was that. He was done, and the distractions were gone. And he was left with newspapers and television shows and websites all carrying Mulder's face and Mulder's name and Mulder's quotes and occasional mentions of Skinner and interviews with both of them and on and on. Nonstop. He had to shut it down.

Besides, he got any information he really needed from the aliens. Jeremiah understood his sudden avoidance of all news outlets, and silently helped him steer clear of it all, making sure he got regular updates that were more... general in tone.

He opened his eyes again and stared at the paper. Sheldon made a soft whining noise. He did his best, but occasionally this happened. The paper would unfold and one of their faces would leer up at him and he was right back to that fucking chair, tied down and watching himself die, while they stood around and made it happen. These days he'd finally gotten himself back to the point where he would sometimes actually skim the article.

Today... he just couldn't deal.

"MULDER'S PLANS CHANGE" shouted the large headline right under the picture, the bottom of the letters almost cut off by the fold. Alex's traitorous brain noted that Mulder was wearing his glasses in the shot... and that his hair was a little long, and falling over his forehead and...

Christ. This would have to happen right now, when he was recovering from this stupid flu and already feeling sub-par. Making an instant decision, he took the entire first section of the newspaper, all the world news, and carried it to the next room, to the wood stove. Sheldon barked and jumped to his feet, following loyally. Taking hold of the hooked handle, he lifted out one of the circular covers, and shoved the paper through the hole and directly into the hungry flames eating away at the logs.

Immediately it caught and flared. He slammed the cover back on, and stalked back to the kitchen table to read the local section. Sheldon barked at the offending paper inside the wood stove a few more times, telling it in no uncertain terms to leave his human alone, then trotted back to Alex's feet and settled in again, leaning warmly up against his leg.

At the table, Alex sat and skritched his puppy's head, and lost himself in reading about the various art exhibits opening up this weekend, and the music playing at the local venues. Inside the stove, the flames curled up around the newsprint, and licked their way through the subhead on the article, in smaller type that fell below the fold. The line Alex had missed completely by not opening the paper the rest of the way.

"Visits Vermont Before Embarking on Five College Speaking Tour."

M

ulder shifted Will to his other hip and tried to manage the car seat one-handed. He hated these things with a passion that hadn't decreased over 32 months of dealing with them. No matter how careful he was getting Will out of it, the 18 zillion straps always seemed to be irrevocably tangled when he needed to get him back into it. "Daddy's going to make a fortune one day by inventing the first ever self-contained, parent-friendly car seat."

Will giggled and thumped his daddy on the shoulder. He'd taken to doing that lately, and Mulder hadn't quite figured out why yet. Probably just his latest nonverbal way of saying 'dad, you're such a nerd'.

"Snow!" he shrieked happily. "No seat... SNOW!"

Mulder smiled at Will's excitement over the drifts of snow covering the gas station lot and the landscape beyond. It was pretty. If it weren't so damned cold, he might even go along with letting the kid play in it a little, run off some energy. They had time. He wasn't due for his dinner at Marlboro College until 6pm. But the temperature was less inviting than the puffy white banks, and the huge flakes were getting smaller in size and picking up in speed. He knew Skinner would prefer to get to the college early rather than risk worsening driving conditions.

Once, he wouldn't have worried about it much, himself. Now... he looked at the little round face with its unfortunate nose and gleaming hazel eyes. Now, he could see Skinner's logic a lot more clearly. He leaned in and pressed a kiss to Will's forehead before swinging him up and into the latest contraption John and Scully had invested in for ultimate safety.

"NO! No seat! SNOW!" Will tried again, trying to defeat Mulder's fingers in their attempts to buckle him in with the newly untangled straps.

"Yep, snow. You'll get to see more than enough of it this trip, little man. But right now we need to get on the road. You can play when we get to the school." As he spoke, he carefully crafted a strong mental image of himself and Will walking through the snow, kicking and touching it. "Soon," he reassured.

Will's wide round eyes fastened on his father's face and stared intently. Mulder kept the picture in his head and repeated "soon". After a moment Will nodded once, and settled into his seat, humming to himself.

Mulder stood up and closed the back door of the four wheel drive SUV, then got himself into the front passenger seat with much less difficulty. He couldn't help feeling vaguely smug at the ease with which small disagreements could be settled with Will... especially when he watched other parents with their toddlers in grocery stores. He shuddered and flipped on the radio. He'd just found a station when Skinner emerged from the gas station and rejoined them.

"It's getting worse. We should probably drive straight on through so we get up there before it gets too bad."

Mulder smiled and nodded. "Yep."

Skinner glanced at him as he started the rental. "What?"

"Nothing. I just knew you were going to say that."

"Ah. You know me so well."

The smile melted slowly as Mulder stared out the tinted window. Not so much, really. Their relationship had never fully recovered from the stilted distance following... everything. He didn't avoid Skinner, exactly. They'd worked together on the rebellion, and stayed friendly but... well, 'distant' covered it best. Following the defeat of the Colonists and the public exposure, a more concentrated drift set in. Mulder's life had changed radically, and they saw even less of each other. He did as much speaking and research outside of the Bureau as he did Bureau work these days, making him twice as busy. And he ran a department. Which he hated.

Not the department. He loved the fact that the X Files were out of the basement and actually had more than two agents assigned. What he hated was running it. Being the boss. Administration. Not his forte, and everyone knew it. He was only doing it because Scully had turned it down. She was hesitant about increasing her workload while Will was still so young. He'd tried spinning it to Doggett, with absolutely no luck. John and Scully managed the whole working together/romantic relationship thing very well, but Doggett refused outright to become her supervisor. That would be breaking too many rules, to him.

Mulder sighed. He kept his thoughts quiet and segregated, in deference to Will's presence in the backseat. His son's sensitivity had necessitated a lot of changes in the way he dealt with his own thought-patterns. Without letting himself get wrapped up in the anxiety or too hung up on the potential outcome, he decided that maybe he'd try again when he returned from this trip. John would be ideal. And Mulder simply hated going back into the office after being away on a speaking tour or a research jaunt... catching up on all the stupidity that came with being a manager. It wasn't as if he hadn't been working with the rest of the department long enough now... one of them ought to be ready soon if John kept resisting.

Then he could decide... stay in as any kind of Bureau investigator at all, or go solo full time. Do the writing, research, speaking gigs. He was liking it better than he'd expected. He liked traveling with Will. Taking him new places, spending full days and nights with him. He couldn't take Will on cases, but he could take him on all kinds of speaking tours. And he was really starting to get into the idea of writing a book. His articles had been well received. He played with the idea for a few miles, until he heard Skinner flipping the station to news.

Skinner glanced over at him. "Weather update."

Mulder nodded, and suddenly he was speaking, without really meaning to. "I wish you hadn't felt like you had to come along. I know you've got a lot on your plate." Skinner had been promoted, too, in the fallout, and while Mulder didn't report to him anymore, enough other people did these days.

Skinner shrugged. "I think Dana has the right idea. I think two of us traveling anytime Will is along is for the best."

Mulder glanced back at his son and smiled. "Yeah, I know... the safety concerns are valid. I just think I could engage some professional protection, and then it wouldn't always have to be you or John or Scully. Or Monica."

Skinner shrugged again. "I don't mind, actually. I like spending time with him." He glanced in the rearview mirror. "Don't I, buddy?" Will's musical laugh came from the back seat, and Skinner grinned. As he refocused on the road he sighed, an echo of Mulder's discontent in the sound. "And I really don't mind getting away from the office for awhile."

Mulder nodded and fell silent again. Usually, if Skinner was the only person available to play the other half of the dynamic traveling duo, he just chose not to try to bring Will along and that solved the problem. But this time, he was going to be gone longer than usual and he liked the idea of bringing Will to New England in the wintertime. He'd tried to convince Scully to let him just engage a couple of professional bodyguards, but she still resisted. Especially since Skinner was available. She couldn't see the problem. Will loved his Uncle Walter.

Will might love him, but Daddy could do without long stretches of time hanging out with Uncle Walter. But how to explain that to Scully without going down roads he really didn't want to travel. He could hear the exchange now. 'He shot Alex Krycek, Scully. Murdered him.' He could just see her eyebrow arch. 'And what, Mulder... you're upset that he didn't let you do it?'

Scully hadn't expressed a great deal of curiosity about Alex Krycek's disappearance. She'd been pretty busy going into labor. Over all she'd taken it in stride, seeing it as just one more in a long series of Krycek encounters that ended in questionable circumstances with no real resolution. Mulder had told her he was positive the new source wasn't Alex, and she'd accepted that... assuming that he was so sure because all the information received checked out so readily as accurate, honest, and helpful.

Doggett was a little more tenacious. He'd pressed a bit about where Alex got off to after they'd seen him with Roher, and occasionally wondered why Krycek hadn't shown up again at any of the various raids and purges over the following months. Mulder knew John smelled something, so he did his best to just avoid the topic whenever possible. He had no idea if John was also pressing Skinner, and if he was, what Skinner might be telling him. Mulder just pleaded flat ignorance and shrugged it off as 'good riddance'.

Doggett seemed to buy it.

Mulder shifted restlessly in the padded seat and tugged on his seat belt. This was why he hated traveling with Skinner. Or spending extended time with him. It got him thinking about Krycek again, and all the... all the things never said, never done, never resolved. That now never would be resolved. About truncated lives that weren't supposed to end the way they did.

Too much thinking. It never failed to depress him.

He needed to shake it off. For one thing, Will was along. No depressive jags around Will. For another, he loved talking to college crowds. Students were more fun than scientists and the stuffier side of 'academia'. He was glad he'd accepted the last minute invitation to the tiny little school on a hill in Vermont. It only meant leaving a few days earlier, and didn't require him to actually change any of his speaking dates with the five college area in Massachusetts. And the Marlboro students who contacted him were so earnest and so excited. Apparently a number of them had been arranging to attend one or more of his events just over the border in Massachusetts, when it occurred to someone that they could invite him to their own school as a 'tag on' to his tour.

Despite the suddenness of the request, something had drawn Mulder to it. The school sounded different... the students sounded different. He'd looked the college up on the web after the initial contact, and been intrigued. It was hardly more than an hour out of his way. Dinner and then an informal evening with students and faculty. Hell, if the entire school population came it would still be a smaller crowd than usual for him, with a group of extremely interested fans... er, followers... no, that was even worse... enthusiasts? Mulder groped for the right word, then finally gave up. They'd called themselves fans, and he was as susceptible to ego as the next guy.

Watching the snow through the steady swish of the windshield wipers, Mulder left his wandering thoughts and tuned his attention to the news when he heard the radio announcer start listing cancellations for the Brattleboro area. "We that close? This a Brattleboro station?"

"Yes. I'd say we're about ten minutes out of Brattleboro, so maybe half an hour or so to Marlboro."

Mulder nodded and listened to the rest of the broadcast, which ended with a prediction of anywhere from 12 to 18 inches of total snowfall, with the possibility of more. He whistled. "Good thing I'm talking to a captive audience that's already trapped up on a hill. Don't think anyone would be coming out to see me tonight. I hope the place they've got me booked at is close to the school."

"If it isn't, I'm sure they can find something for us right there on campus."

Mulder snorted. "No way am I sleeping in some kid's dorm room. I am very over that experience." He turned to check on Will, only to find he'd nodded off. He was snuggled up in his car seat with his trusty squeaky weasel tucked under one arm. Which probably explained why there had been nary a peep out of him, despite Mulder's downward spiraling thoughts. "Oh great. He's asleep, which means he'll be wired for dinner time. Oh well... hope they knew what they were getting into when they said 'sure, bring your son.' At least it sounds small and friendly."

"Why'd you agree to do this one again?"

I was hoping it would mean you wouldn't be able to come. "Something about the invitation just appealed to me." He'd really hoped moving up the departure and adding on days, and more out-of-the-way driving, would cause Skinner to back out. No such luck. He kept his gaze trained out the window. "It's an interesting school, and they sounded so... excited. I get a lot of invitations, but very few of them are quite this... earnest. Besides, I was in the neighborhood."

"So to speak," Skinner murmured, with a half smile.

Mulder nodded in acknowledgement. "Yeah, well, it wasn't too far out of the way. At least it wasn't Maine or something." He peered out at the swirling snow and the dim gray afternoon light. "Of course, I didn't know we'd be getting a storm just in time for the drive."

"Mm. Not your fault. Some things, you just can't help."

Mulder wondered at the odd melancholy tone in Skinner's voice, but he agreed whole-heartedly with the sentiment.

pov change

Walter concentrated on the road as he navigated the big black vehicle through Brattleboro and up the steep grade that would take them into Marlboro. Looked like a pretty little town, and he hoped the weather might be a little better on the way back through so they could stop. He admitted, at least to himself, that at the moment he was glad of the excuse of the bad weather so he could focus on the driving and not try to make small talk. Over the years, his and Mulder's relationship had continued to deteriorate, to the point where he really had to wonder why he'd offered to come along on this trip.

Because you couldn't wait to get out of the office. Because anything sounded better than more meetings, more administrative tasks, more work work work. A soft snore emanated from the back seat. Oh. And that. He glanced in the rearview mirror compulsively, smiling at the boy sleeping soundly in the car seat, his head leaned against the cushioned neck pad, his mouth open, drooling on his weasel. He loved the opportunity to spend time with Will. He found himself regretting never having had children himself. He knew it hadn't been possible at the time, and never a good idea with the Consortium around, but... damn. He envied the experience and appreciated how much time Dana let him spend with Will. Of course, he preferred playing body guard when Dana was traveling, but in this instance he was just too ready to get out of DC for a few weeks.

And if that wasn't an indication that accepting the promotion had been a mistake, he didn't know what was. Hell, to agree to travel with Mulder for a stretch of days... it spoke to his desperation.

He sent up another silent thank you that they'd finally figured out the problem with Will and Mulder. He couldn't imagine traveling with the pair of them if Will still cried up a storm every time he was with his father. Of course, if that had happened, he doubted Dana would have allowed Will to travel with Mulder. Hell, he doubted Mulder would have even suggested it. Mulder had been getting depressed enough about it, Walter wouldn't have been surprised if he'd just given up completely, though Dana probably wouldn't have allowed that, either.

It had taken most of a year and a lot of frustration, mostly on Mulder's part, and finally alien intervention, for them to realize that Will's difficulty with Mulder was all mental. Or, more accurately, emotional.

They knew Will was different. Had known since day one. The flying objects were a really good clue. His incredibly early ability to focus, and to respond to adults through action and gesture, also hinted at more than precociousness. His aptitudes could have been written off to Mulder's genius and Dana's obvious high intelligence as well, but coupled with everything else, it was clear there was more going on in his brain than the average baby's. Even the average baby genius.

They didn't know exactly how much Will picked up from the adults around him on a telepathic level. Mulder had described in great detail what his experiences had been like when the artifacts had activated his own alien genetics. They assumed Will's experiences couldn't possibly be that overwhelming, or the poor kid would have been truly nuts by now, and probably unable to tolerate human presence. But they knew there were some similarities, based on the results of brain activity studies that demonstrated striking similarities with the results of brain scans Mulder had undergone. At the same time, they knew Will's brain activity also exceeded Mulder's in some ways, as Mulder hadn't experienced telekinesis.

They'd gotten that far when the full collaboration of Rebel and human resistance had triumphed over the Colonists. With the Colonists and the Consortium in ruins, and the Rebels finally about to openly communicate with human society, the bridges of more concrete trust began to be built. And eventually the humans - in this case Dana Scully - could trust them enough to ask them about her son's condition.

The Rebels had been predictably intrigued, and the cooing fascination they had for the baby almost sent Dana running out the door again. Walter remembered it well. No way was her son becoming a guinea pig for any aliens, even proven friendly ones. Especially ones she'd personally watched torching abductees, no matter that they'd eventually turned out to be on the "right" side. Mulder had eventually pleaded with her to at least let him ask the aliens if they knew of any reason Will would be so intolerant of his father's presence, and Dana had relented.

The aliens couldn't believe the humans didn't understand. They exhibited no surprise at the news, and in minutes, when they grasped the crux of the problem, they were explaining to Mulder that Will likely had a much stronger mental connection with him than with anyone else, given Mulder's similar genetics and own odd abilities. When Mulder had tried to explain to them that his telepathy had gone away, they'd merely exchanged looks and given him disbelieving stares. He insisted, and finally they nodded with obvious condescension, making it clear to anyone else in the room that abilities such as those Mulder experienced did not just 'go away'. Walter remembered them staring at Mulder with a hint of the same greedy interest they showed in Will. But given his own experiences, Mulder was no more interested in being a subject of alien study than Dana was interested in offering up Will.

The aliens relented, and slowly, haltingly, with plenty of communication difficulties mostly smoothed out by Jeremiah Smith, they managed to make themselves understood... that given Will and Mulder's alien/hybrid genetics, Will experienced his father's presence very differently than he experienced other people. While they couldn't say for certain exactly what Will experienced (without further testing, they continued to stress hopefully) they could definitely say that he would get much clearer images, emotions and thoughts from Mulder than from anyone else. The aliens then tried to describe how Mulder would need to behave in order to make this less unpleasant for his son.

Walter smothered a smile. He couldn't remember ever seeing Mulder so flummoxed as when the aliens attempted to explain controlling his thoughts and emotions around his son. For a man who lived almost completely in his brain, whose brain was not always a particularly pleasant place to be, whose brain never stopped moving and whirring and processing, whose emotional state naturally canted toward the depressed and introverted... the very idea of trying to still his thought processes and project happiness and simplicity and comfort to his son was petrifying. After a life of living with very hard edges, sharpened to a razor's touch in places through sheer necessity and survival, to be suddenly told he needed to wrap those edges in cotton and be much, much softer seemed downright impossible. Not to mention the aliens' blasé manner of baldly stating that Mulder's state of 'emotional neediness' would have to be tempered before his son would stop responding to his presence with wails of upset. Walter remembered wincing away from the statement in sympathetic embarrassment, wishing he hadn't been in the room to hear it.

After he adjusted to his initial horror, though, Mulder went after the solution with his usual single-minded intensity. He finally had an answer, and he was going to do whatever it took to make it work. He was also horrified at the thought that he'd been inflicting emotional distress on his son to the tune of his own screwed up psyche. Nobody wanted to be thought of as a gaping black hole of emotional need, and certainly not to inflict that on their infant son. He'd immediately realized that he'd been falling into a vicious cycle, as the more Will cried in his presence, the more demoralized he'd become, the more tense and anxious, depressed and self-loathing, which in turn ratcheted up Will's discomfort.

He agreed immediately to work with Jeremiah on meditation, and to everyone's surprise Langly, on hearing the news, volunteered to work with him and learn meditation as well, just out of support and general solidarity. He was able to start making some changes the same day he talked to the aliens, simply by focusing his thoughts and being careful what he had on his mind when he came into Will's orbit. Will's reactions would often be the best arbiter. Dana actually got to the point of joking that Will's occasional naturally-occurring irritability had the positive side effect of making Mulder consciously cultivate a good mood.

As Will got older, it was clear to all of them that he was getting better at differentiating his own experiences from Mulder's, and at picking up more from other non-Mulder adults. But Mulder still had to be more careful than anyone. It also had the odd side effect of making Will less verbal than other children, and disinclined to respond to the various incentives the adults around him offered to get him to verbalize more. So far no actual speech pathologies had been diagnosed, so no one was worrying much yet.

Walter had no idea if Mulder's increasingly close relationship with Will had re-stimulated his own latent telepathy that the aliens had so obviously known was still there just waiting to be utilized again. Mulder didn't talk to him about much of anything these days, and certainly not anything that personal. For the most part that suited him. Sometimes though, he just missed their old relationship, and wondered if there was any way to recapture it.

Telling him it wasn't you that shot Krycek might be a good place to start. But his mind balked at the idea even as it was the first thing that floated to the surface. Every time he thought to broach the topic, he remembered the flat, unaffected way Mulder had viewed the shooting. He'd actually rewatched the tape... he'd been 'gifted' with a copy from the men who had set the scene. Watching Mulder's complete lack of reaction didn't encourage him to talk about his own mixed feelings about the event with the man. Too complicated, too easy to get into weird territory like "and why would you feel bad about killing Krycek?" Every time he thought it might be good to talk about it, he remembered that Krycek had killed Mulder's father, which in a way made his crime against Mulder even more personal than his crime against Skinner. When someone attacked you personally, you responded one way. When someone attacked those you loved... the reaction was bound to be different, stronger, that much more intense.

How could he tell Mulder how horrible he felt about that night, without inadvertently insulting the memory of Mulder's father, Scully's sister? Driving an even deeper wedge between he and Mulder.

He supposed that was the best indication that Mulder's telepathy wasn't back, at least insofar as his own thoughts were concerned. If Mulder could hear his thoughts, he'd certainly have confronted Walter by now. Confronted him about all he wasn't saying, about the reasons why he avoided Mulder so much, about the deep-seated anger and blame he directed at Mulder for not stopping that hideous alien impersonator from shooting Alex Krycek under the guise of his face.

Or maybe... just maybe this was proof Mulder's telepathy was active again. Perhaps Mulder had nothing to do with him these days exactly because he could read Walter's conflicted feelings as easily as a book. Perhaps he knew exactly how Walter felt about Alex Krycek.

And that was a scary thought indeed.

W

hen Alex looked out the window he was surprised to see the snowfall had thickened, and the inches were stacking up. He'd been falling down on the job, neglecting his responsibilities as a Vermonter. He was supposed to listen to or watch the weather report at least three times a day since moving here. He hadn't paid any attention to the forecast while he was sick, and hadn't even thought about it today. Granted, he'd gotten a little distracted... and then spent the day trying to distract himself from his distraction by starting a new book one of the students had loaned him on pottery.

At least he didn't have to worry about his kids not showing up. They lived on campus and wouldn't have to drive. And if the thought of conversational Russian wasn't enough to drag them out into the storm, the thought of dinner would be. His own drive to the college was short enough he wasn't concerned. His truck could take it, and if he didn't feel like driving, it wasn't even that far of a walk.

He left his front yard view of the gathering dusk of late afternoon and went back to his rocking chair, blanket and book. Not to mention the dog at his feet, head raised and watching him carefully as he returned. He refused to feel like an old man... merely a middle-aged man who'd been sick.

Outside, a black four wheel drive SUV with tinted windows rolled slowly past the end of his driveway and climbed the last upslope toward the tiny little college he thought of as his own.

A

s much as he'd appreciated the distraction of the weather, Walter was relieved to reach the small college and finally be able to stop. The main road up to the school, Route 9, was one long incline... with curves. In the snow, it was damn hazardous and his neck hurt from the tension of the last half hour of driving uphill, past cars sitting beside the road.

A couple had noticeably been accidents, but a few appeared to be parked. At his inquiry, Mulder said they were most likely waiting for salt or sand trucks so they could follow behind. Sure enough, when they passed a sand truck heading down the mountain, lights came on and cars pulled out to follow.

Climbing out of the SUV, he stretched and tried to work the kinks out of his shoulders. The thickly falling snow immediately covered his coat and left wet splotches on his glasses. He leaned back in and grabbed the ball cap he'd brought, and tugged it down to give his glasses some shield.

On the other side of the car, Mulder tussled with Will's car seat straps, and the boy woke up, delighted that he would be allowed to walk in the snow this time. "Mulder, he's wearing sneakers," Walter warned.

"Oh, good point. Scully packed boots, didn't she? I'll get them for him in a minute. He's so excited."

And sure enough, they managed to hold him at their sides long enough to cross the road from the small parking area onto the actual campus grounds, but then he bolted and plowed straight into the nearest drift with a lilting giggle. Mulder stood in the snow, hatless and grinning, watching him wade through the freshly fallen inches on the ground that reached a lot higher on his little legs than on the adults.

"Snow!"

"Cool, huh?"

Walter watched Mulder squat next to Will and scoop up a handful, carefully packing it into a snowball. Will watched studiously. Walter, as the only viable target, decided it was time for him to retreat. "I'll go find someone to direct us where we need to go, maybe find out how far away that hotel is."

"Coward!" Mulder called after him as he walked quickly in the other direction, ducking around the corner of the small admissions building just as a snowball pelted through the air in his general direction. He smiled, and wondered if maybe this trip wouldn't be good for him and Mulder after all. Around Will, Mulder was noticeably different, and maybe over the next days of travel there could be some sort of rapprochement.

As he wiped his glasses dry in the warmth of Admissions, he sighed. Maybe. Or possibly they'd just go on with the shadow of Alex Krycek stretching over every word they ever said to each other.

pov change

Mulder watched Skinner escape into the Admissions office, and turned to a laughing Will with a shrug. "There goes our target." He projected a mental image of he and Will pelting Uncle Walter with snow, and Will laughed harder. His cheeks were red and his hair stuck up from where he'd slept on it. Mulder felt a wave of intense love and affection rush through him, and in immediate response Will's face lit up like a bonfire. He stepped forward and flung his little arms around his father and jumped on him with enough force to send Mulder falling over backwards into the snow.

Mulder laughed as he sat down, hard. His jeans started to soak up the snow instantly but he hugged back before he got back to his feet, hefting Will in his arms as he rose, sending a silent thank you out to the aliens who had helped him figure out how to communicate with his son. One of the greatest gifts of his life was knowing, on a deep cellular level, that his son would never question his father's love for him, the way he had as a child, adolescent, and adult.

He heard a door open and watched as a small woman with short salt and pepper hair came hurrying out of the Admissions building, Skinner behind her. "Hello," she called, "I'm Dora. I'm so pleased to welcome you here, Mr. Mulder! The students are so thrilled you agreed, and especially since the invitation was so last minute."

"Well, it sounded like a fascinating place up here." He extended his hand and returned her wide smile.

"Sorry about the weather reception, but we're so glad you got here all right. Your hotel is back down Route 9, so we will of course make other arrangements for you if the snow is bad enough that you can't get back down the mountain. They do close that road, because of the amount of tractor trailers using it."

"We understand," he reassured her. "Please, don't let me keep you out here in the cold." He indicated her lack of a coat. "My son was just a little enchanted with the snow."

Dora gave Will a huge grin and brushed the clinging flakes from his bangs. "Well, of course you were, weren't you? You've got plenty of time before dinner. If you don't mind walking in the snow, we'd love to arrange to have someone show you around the campus."

Feeling the intense pull from Will that he wanted to stay in the white stuff, Mulder nodded. "That would be great. Let me just dig out his boots and we'd love to." He started back to the car with Will still on his hip, but Skinner immediately put out his arms to take him. Pausing, he realized it would be a lot easier to get in and out of the bags with both arms free, and he lifted Will into Skinner's waiting grasp.

Will went willingly, reaching up and catching the brim of Skinner's hat, and pulling it off to put on his own head. Mulder heard Skinner laugh as he followed Dora back inside. Walking back to the car, he wondered about all that Will picked up, and how his odd interactions with Skinner came across in the boy's brain. He didn't seem to be absorbing any of his father's reticence to spend time with the man. Will loved Skinner, and they all knew it. Mulder hoped that meant he'd done a good job of learning how to control his wayward thoughts whenever he was around Will and Skinner together.

Because it would really suck if Will ended up like his father... associating Walter Skinner with the sight of an unknown man, beautiful and tragic, dying from a bullet between the eyes.

A

lex opened the back door and whistled Sheldon back in from the fenced run where the little dog was apparently chasing snow flakes. Sheldon bounded up to him and pounced at his feet. Catching the puppy up, he rubbed him down with the towel hanging by the back door for exactly that purpose, and carried him to the kitchen. Checking his blanket, food and toys, Alex left the light on and shut the kitchen door tightly.

He checked the wood stove, pulled on his boots and coat, and added a scarf and hat as an afterthought. He supposed he needed to be a little careful given his recent illness. Digging around in the closet he came up with his larger flashlight, then headed out, putting his gloves on as he went. The snow was beautiful, and if he hadn't been just coming off being so sick, he'd have walked. He stood on the steps and still contemplated it.

Might do him good.

Might give him a relapse, Mary's caustic voice muttered in his ear. He'd already walked it once today and he'd been damn tired when he got back.

Sighing, he went to the truck, brushed it off, and headed up to the school. Felt silly sometimes, taking the truck when he was so damn close to campus. Still, he was not interested in another bout with the fever and chills, body aches and cement-head.

At campus, he pulled into the little parking lot across the road from Admissions, to the right of a big black SUV that had obviously been sitting there a couple hours, from the looks of the snow cover. He could make out Dora's car which had undoubtedly been there all day... it was practically snowed under. He wondered that she was still on campus this late. Maybe she'd gotten a ride home with someone else, with more traction. If she was in the dining hall, he made a mental note to offer her to stay at his place. He didn't want her driving down Route 9 tonight.

He crossed the road and slogged through the snow to the dining hall. Coming up the front steps, he caught his breath and held it before he entered the foyer that was used by the smokers. One of the downsides of Marlboro... oddly, a high percentage of the students smoked, and the foyer to the dining hall was always thick with the scent of smoke on the air, even if no one was actively smoking there. He pushed on through the double doors into the main dining hall, and drew a breath. The warm air flooded him with the smells of food and wet wool. The high ceiling of the old barn didn't make a dent in the heat, what with the kitchen working full blast and the number of people crowding into the hall. The old wood floor and walls made it seem more like a home than a cafeteria.

The long tables were sparsely filled; he was a little early. He staked out the table they usually used as the international table, hanging his coat on the back of a chair and stripping off his hat and scarf and one of his sweaters. A squeal came from the side doors, and he looked up just in time to catch the barreling blonde girl as she threw her arms around his chest and squeezed. "You're here! Are you okay? They said you were so sick! I was worried!"

He grinned and gave her a quick hug back. "Hello to you too, Lara. I'm fine. It was just the flu from hell. It's gone now. I'll be back for classes tomorrow. But I didn't want to miss dinner tonight." As she pulled back and grinned up at him, he met her eyes then ducked his own and smiled shyly. "Um... thanks. For the card."

"I was worried," she repeated promptly, and flung herself down at the table, pulling off her oversized thrift-store wool duster. She rifled her hands through her blonde spikes tipped with green. They were looking a little limp and sagging tonight with the excess moisture from the snow. She arrowed him a sharp look and pointed a long finger at him. "You need someone to take care of you. Men," she snorted, as if that explained everything.

He dropped into his own chair and laughed. The punky, pierced girl in front of him was an unlikely match for the cute card she'd left for him, but after two years of Russian with her, he knew she was a delightful collection of contradictions. She'd pegged him for gay within two weeks of classes with him, and had been suggesting potential matches ever since... from the faculty, student body, staff. He leaned back in his chair and shrugged. "I've got Sheldon now, and he looks after me just fine."

She snorted again. "Yeah, I'm sure he's great at getting you soup and making sure you stay in bed." She was cut off by the arrival of three more students, and the red headed girl draping herself over Lara's shoulders. Chairs were pulled out, coats discarded, greetings exchanged as each inquired after Alex's health. The rush was on and more students were filing through the side doors and front doors, and lining up on both sides of the buffet. Alex started to rise to fill a tray, but Lara pushed him back into his chair and pronounced she would get his food for him, took down everything he wanted and marched off to the line.

As the table filled in and students came back with their trays, other students stopped by the table to speak to Alex and ask him if he felt better. A number of faculty paused to express their concern as well. It was a strange, warm feeling... all these people who had noticed a few days absence and cared enough to ask after him. By the time Lara came back with his meal, he felt like he was glowing.

It didn't occur to him until after they all had their food, which was the cue to begin speaking only in Russian, to wonder why there were so many faculty still on campus when the weather was so bad. He posed the question to his students. A couple gestured to the Staples Room and another, more experienced student, thought for a moment then answered in careful Russian that "a guest was present". He caught on immediately that there must be an invited speaker who was being entertained in the Staples Room off the back of the dining hall, with a cadre of faculty and students. He poked around in his memory, but couldn't recall someone being scheduled. He often went to the lectures and programs, and he was feeling better enough from all the solicitous concern that he just might stay for whatever it was tonight.

He let himself slide back into the conversation around him, allowing the students who knew French or Spanish to slip into that to ask questions or clarify something. His new students from this semester were progressing rapidly, especially given the chance to converse with the students carrying over from the previous year. Lara's grasp of the language shone, given her added advantage of the beloved Russian grandfather she'd had plenty of conversations with over the summer break.

He and five of the more experienced students were lingering over coffee and dessert when the door to the Staples Room opened and people began filing out with trays and dishes. He glanced up... 7:15pm. Must be the speaker went on at 7:30. He was turning back to the table to ask who the speaker was tonight, and on what topic, when his mouth dropped open and all the blood drained from his face.

Fox Mulder and Walter Skinner walked out of the Staples Room, right into his dining hall. He could feel Lara's hand on his arm, shaking him, knew she was speaking because in his peripheral vision her lips were moving. But the rushing in his ears took out all sound and he couldn't have looked away from the impossible vision if he'd tried. How... how? Here? In his dining hall?

He knew it had to be only seconds but time jelled and held, stretching insanely as he watched Mulder suddenly bend and pick up a small boy, watched the boy turn in his direction and extend an arm... watched Mulder follow the direction of the arm and pointing finger...

And literally felt the blow of Mulder's eyes meeting his. He watched Mulder's face go white and shocked, watched Skinner put out a hand in concern, only to turn and get caught in the same tractor beam of impossibility. He saw two mouths moving, heard from some far distant place two voices shout "Krycek?" over the quiet conversations of the mostly emptied dining hall.

All at once it was like a mirror being struck by a hammer. Time fractured and shards flew everywhere, sending the perceived world spinning into sharp, surreal bits. Everything picked back up to normal speed with a sickening lurch, the rushing noise in his ears disappeared, he could hear Lara getting more and more frantic asking if he was okay, feel her fingernails leaving dents in his forearm.

See Mulder and Skinner crossing the room at top speed, coming straight for him.

He flung himself back from the table, having no idea what was in his mind, no plan whatsoever... only knowing he had to get AWAY, get out of the room, away from these two, just away. His chair skidded on the wood floor and caught in the heaviness of his coat and scarf and sweater all laying over the back of it, overbalanced, and he tipped over with it, arms flailing wildly as he went down with a resounding crash. He hardly felt the impact on the floor as he scrambled backwards like a crab, heading for the double doors to the smoking foyer.

"Wait!" Mulder was calling and "STOP!" Skinner thundered as they pounded across the floor toward him but all he could think of was gaining his feet and moving, running, disappearing. He managed to twist and rise and was just hitting the doors to swing them wide when a powerful arm caught him around the middle and yanked him back, spun him around and slammed him up against the wall next to the door.

Seven days flat on his back combined with the shock and the falling out of the chair and the force of hitting the wall... the breath went out of him and he collapsed against the wall, staring up at Walter Skinner looming over him and chanting "you're alive you're alive you're alive". He rocked his head back against the wall and tried to catch his breath, tried to get his reflexes going, tried to figure what to do, where to go, how to escape the vice grip of steel fingers around his right bicep... then Skinner's hand was lifting toward his face and he flinched automatically, left arm half-lifting, face turning away.

Skinner paused, but then the fingers lighted gently on his cheek, stroking down to his jaw, cradling his face as it was guided back around. He blinked, and took in the look on Skinner's face. It wasn't anger or hate or killing rage. It was disbelief, shaded with wonder. The fingers that stroked him continuously, touched his hair, touched his throat, were almost reverent. His thought process stuttered and ground to a halt, and for a long moment there was just Walter Skinner, as damnably big and overwhelming and masculine and... and... fuck it... as hot as ever, and Alex could kick himself for feeling that stupid old shiver all through his center. The uncontrollable shiver that sent him back years and lifetimes, to being introduced to the devastating man as a new agent and knowing deep inside that he was in serious trouble. But Skinner was so close and Christ, he even smelled the same and the way he was touching, so soft, so tender, like he never had except in half-asleep fantasies. After everything, how the hell could one kind touch override...

Mulder, hampered by an armful of toddler, skidded to a stop beside them seconds after Skinner's grab. He stood, gaping, looking from Alex to Skinner and back again.

Alex gathered himself together, regulated his breathing and met Skinner's eyes. He tried for ice but heard his voice tremble as he stated flatly, "Get your hands off me."

Surprising them both, Skinner responded immediately, releasing Alex and taking a step back, still shell-shocked. But before Alex could move, Mulder stepped forward, hand out and groping the back of Alex's neck thoroughly. Alex twisted to bat his hand away, then froze when he locked eyes with the child in Mulder's other arm. His pause gave Mulder enough time to finish his search, and move on to Alex's arm.

"It's you. It's really you. You're not a clone are you? Would you know? And your arm! You have an arm. But you died, I saw him shoot you... was it the aliens, did they heal you? Can they heal that much damage?" And between one word and the next, Mulder yanked him in for a crushing one-armed hug. "Fuck, Alex, it's really YOU! I thought I'd never see you again."

Mulder's hand gripped the back of his sweater and his face was mashed into Mulder's shoulder. And for fuck's sake, Mulder was hugging him. It was too much all over again right on the heels of Skinner. All of it was too much, the confusion of their sudden appearance, their strange joy at seeing him, the physical closeness. The sheer presence of Mulder assailed him and he hated the way every sense in him recognized it, wanted to melt into it. Just like that voice, babbling right next to his ear, bringing back all the old thoughts, memories, fantasies, from before.

Before.

Before a night in the Hoover garage. He stiffened and twisted his head enough to breathe, trying to be mindful not to shove Mulder away because of the kid right at arm level. His head was still swamped in warm, fragrant Mulder, but he managed to choke out, "Seriously, you guys need to GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME."

Mulder was slower to respond than Skinner, but he released Alex after a long minute and stepped back, eyes glinting with restrained moisture, mouth still running. "Then it was you, it was you all along, wasn't it? The source, Xealot... oh god, of course. The spelling... Alex... it's an anagram... X-e-a-l. I'm so STUPID. But I mean I saw you die, I thought... I should have known the aliens could do something, I should have realized. Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you say who you were? What are you doing here?"

Alex lifted a hand, still pale and shaky, and suddenly incredibly conscious of the entire population of the dining hall, even the kitchen staff, staring at them in total silence. He took a few deep breaths and tried to clear his head. "Mulder. SHUT. UP. What the hell are you doing here?"

"Students. They invited me. I was here for a dinner and then an informal roundtable with the students and faculty. Didn't you... isn't that why..."

Alex's chin snapped up and his eyes flashed angrily. "NO. That is not why I'm here. I didn't come looking for you. Do you think I'd be trying to get the hell away from you if I'd come looking? I work here."

Mulder and Skinner exchanged confused looks and Mulder looked back to Alex. "But... then you must have known... I mean..."

"He's been out sick for a week," a voice suddenly interjected, and Lara ducked around Mulder to slide herself under Alex's left arm, wrapping her own arm around his waist. He wondered if he looked that close to toppling over. Considering how he felt, maybe so. "I don't think he's heard about your scheduled talk," she continued. "They've only been announcing it and putting up fliers this week."

"Of course," Mulder mumbled. "It was so last minute... you've been sick?"

"Flu," Alex answered automatically, then winced. He didn't owe these bastards any answers. Where the hell did they get off hugging him? Touching him? Acting like they were glad to see him? His voice hardened. "Look, just go do your little... talk, and I'll be going home now. Do me a favor and don't pay me a visit on your way out of town."

"Oh Christ, of course... you think I killed you," Skinner moaned.

Mulder rounded on him with an angry sound from deep in his throat. "Well, you did. For fuck's sake, you shot him in cold-"

"Yeah, and you just did so much to prevent it, didn't you?" Alex snarled.

Mulder whirled to him, stricken. "No, wait, Alex! I can explain-"

"Yeah, I'm sure you both have great explanations. Sorry, I've been sick, going to have to skip them." He leaned on Lara and turned to leave when a hard hand caught him again. His anger rose higher and his hand closed into a fist.

"No, wait." Skinner guided him back around more gently this time, but didn't let go. "You have to listen to me. You have to. It's insane, but it's not what you think. I swear. You need to let me explain."

"I need to go home," Alex bit out, twisting out of Skinner's grip. "And you," he gestured at Mulder "need to go do your thing. Talk about your heroic defeat of the aliens. And you..." He stared at Skinner for a moment, then shrugged. "I don't know what the hell you're doing here." He turned away again, carefully avoiding looking at the little boy staring fixedly at him.

The hand clamped on his arm one last time and releasing Lara, he let all the old instincts kick in. Whirling, he let fly and Skinner tumbled backwards from the hit to the jaw and the knee to the gut. Alex stood panting, bristling with anger. "I said don't touch me." And there was the voice he'd been after. The low, deadly husk that shocked the room back into silence.

Of course, he realized, the sudden morph from mild-mannered Russian professor to celebrity-knowing martial artist might also have something to do with the echoing quiet.

Suddenly a cheery voice snapped the spell. "So, you all know each other? What an unexpected surprise! Alex, you never told us you had famous friends." Dora strode between them and waved to a young woman in the kitchen, leaning wide eyed out over the dirty dish window. "Hannah, get some ice for Mr. Skinner, won't you. That's a dear. Here Mr. Skinner, sit. That's it, Hannah will be right out." She stepped up to Alex, stopping at the edge of his personal space. "I had no idea you knew people in the government. People who were in the... resistance." Her expectant pause and impressed voice said it all. She wanted the scoop and she thought she already knew what it was.

Alex wanted to scream when Mulder stepped into the gap smoothly. "He's modest like that. We go back a long way. Alex here was instrumental in the defeat of the Colonists. He was right there in the resistance with us, right at the center of it all, in fact." Warming to his subject, Mulder cast his eyes around the rest of the room, gathering people in and lowering his voice conspiratorially. "Those of you who have read up on the alien war? You've read about how there are people who played a variety of roles, some of them less... obvious than others." He cleared his throat meaningfully.

A murmur of thrilled excitement rippled through the crowd and people moved closer. Dora gasped, and one hand flew to her mouth. "Alex! YOU?" Even Lara, instead of squaring off against Mulder and Skinner, was now staring at him in shock and awe. He shot Mulder a glare that should have singed his eyebrows off. Mulder simply shot him a smug smile as voices started clamoring, student and faculty intermingled.

"Alex? For real? The resistance?!"

"Alex, that's amazing. Why didn't you ever say anything?"

"You?! Alex! You da man! Do you know any aliens?"

"I can't believe we've been working right here with someone who worked with the aliens!"

"I've been taking tutorials with a guy who was in the resistance! My dad is so going to freak!"

Alex held up his hands and shook his head, trying to get control of the small but enthusiastic crowd. How the hell had this happened? Oh right... Skinner and Mulder showed up in his life, and all hell broke loose. What else. Okay, so let's shoot straight for plausible deniability. "Whoa, wait. Hold it right there. Mulder, knock it off and bring it back down to earth. I didn't work with you and I sure as hell wasn't some kind of hero-" But it was too late, and Alex could already see it in the eyes around him. Then Skinner stood up and with his jaw already bruising, hammered the nail in the coffin.

"You knock it off, Alex. If you're alive - and you obviously are - then it's a done deal. Don't even try to pretend it wasn't you." He took a step closer but carefully stayed out of range, shaking his head. His eyes practically glowed. "Only you could have pulled that off. I knew it felt like you... but I just couldn't figure how."

Alex met the deep brown gaze locked on his and felt his joints melt, and the urge to scream resurged. But the warmth and respect in Skinner's voice... that was something he'd never even let himself fantasize. He'd always spun some sort of carefully vague idea for himself of being forgiven, when he'd indulged himself in wishful thinking in the days of old. They'd find out he'd been trying to help, in his own way, in his own backwards weird-ass convoluted way, and they'd call it a tradeoff for his old sins.

Of course, that was back before they killed him.

But Christ... not in a million years had he ever expected respect.

Killed, Krycek. KILLED you. Are you missing that little fact? Shot. You. Dead.

"Alright, this has gone far enough. I'm going home, now, and you can all just have your group hallucination together and pretend I was some part of fighting off the aliens." He tried to leave again, but sometime after his attack on Skinner and before his current attempt at escape, people had managed to get between him and the doors. And none of them looked interested in moving out of his way.

And he did know better than to attempt to move students in the same way he'd moved Skinner.

"Alex. You know we can't let you walk out that door." Skinner's low voice reverberated in his ears and he closed his eyes against it. "You'll disappear and you... can't. We have to talk. I know what you're thinking... believe me, I know. You haven't lived in my head the last two and a half years. You need to give me at least ten minutes of your time. You need to hear what I have to say. You go through that door and you're gone, and don't think we don't know it."

"Please," Alex scoffed, jerking a thumb out the window and folding his arms over his chest. "In case you hadn't noticed, minor blizzard? Where the hell would I go."

"Please," mimicked Skinner, crossing his arms over his chest in exactly the same way. "Like a little life-threatening weather would stop you."

Alex felt a hand on his arm again. Only the fact that he could see Skinner hadn't moved kept him from reacting with another swing. He turned his head stiffly and found Lara staring up at him. "What's he talking about? You wouldn't just leave, would you, Alex?"

He opened his mouth but nothing came out. Of course he'd planned to leave. The minute he was through the doors. Stop at the cabin, pick up Sheldon and a few things, and get on the road. Call the aliens and spend the night on a spaceship until they could resettle him. By definition, the men who killed him knowing where he lived was a Bad Idea.

Looking down into her tough little face that seemed suddenly all too vulnerable, he just couldn't seem to spit it out. But then, apparently he didn't need to.

"You would," she murmured, obviously reading the answer in his face. "You would, wouldn't you?" She shot a speculative look at Mulder, then Skinner, then back to Alex. "Don't, Alex."

Alex didn't say anything, just looked away. Just in time to note the shrewd look coming over Mulder's face. All his alarm bells went off. What the hell was the man thinking now? He had to get-

"Say, everyone. Obviously, this is an unexpected little reunion here, and we really need to talk to Alex. It's imperative, really. I hate to do this but... obviously we won't be leaving as early tomorrow as we predicted, given the snow conditions. Any chance we can reschedule the larger question and answer session for tomorrow? I'll call the next stop, explain the situation, let them know we're snowed in up here in Vermont. I'll be able to give more time tomorrow." Mulder glanced around again, meeting eyes as he scanned the room, smiling benignly, every inch the famous, trustworthy man who had saved their planet, and a doting father to boot, as demonstrated by the ruddy-cheeked child clinging to him.

Alex groaned as the room broke out into immediate agreement, and someone offered to go to the lecture hall and let those gathered there know about the reschedule. Mulder offered sincere gratitude and heartfelt assurances and then swung his laser gaze back onto Alex. Alex took two steps backwards before he could stop himself. Mulder dropped his voice. "Alex, we need to talk, and we're not moving and you're not going anywhere until we do. You will talk to me... or listen to me at the very least... if I have to get out the old handcuffs to make it happen. Which I'm guessing you probably would not appreciate." He jerked his head, encompassing the remaining people who were milling about, trying to look like they weren't eavesdropping and doing a terrible job of it. Mulder was speaking just clearly enough, Alex knew his voice was carrying as effectively as if he was addressing the room at large.

He met Alex's murderous gaze and stared right back, unaffected. "Now I'm also guessing you'd rather not just disappear from here, and there's no reason you have to. But I know Skinner's right. You go out those doors, and we're not going to see you again. I know you enough to know that if I take my eyes off you, you're gone. But you don't need to disappear." Now Mulder's voice was the low soothing of a psychologist, and Alex wished he had an excuse to punch him. "We won't interrupt your life here. I promise. I just want to talk to you. Explain some things. Things you'll want to know. Things you need to know. Then I'll walk away and I'll make sure nobody bothers you."

"Little late for that," Alex ground out through clenched teeth.

Mulder snorted. "Like you can't handle this." He jerked his head again, then dropped his voice even lower. "Nothing's going to happen. You're completely safe." Alex didn't even have time to sneer before Mulder leaned his head against Will. "I have my son with me, Alex. I swear to you. Nothing will happen. Just give me a chance to talk to you. Please, Alex."

"Please." The unexpected soft addition came from Skinner.

Alex swayed, as sudden dizziness swept over him. Lara yelped and tried to get under his arm again. Before his knees could give way, Skinner had him in a surprisingly careful grip, keeping him on his feet but not restraining him at all. In a knee-jerk reaction, he tried to push away but the room tilted alarmingly and all he achieved was that Skinner had to catch him again, taking a more solid hold this time.

"Easy there, I've got you. Just relax for a minute."

Right. Relax. Leaned up against Walter Skinner's broad, flannel-covered chest, with those big hands cradling him and his head spinning. Oh yeah. Relaxation-city. He shook his head to try to clear it but the dizziness just got worse, and he groaned, shutting his eyes against the yellow dots suddenly crowding his vision. This was too embarrassing for words. He was blaming the flu, and that's all there was to it.

"I'm sick," he stated loudly and clearly, before he'd quite realized his brain had decided he should speak. He immediately felt stupid, and even more so when Mulder leaped on the pronouncement.

"You look like you are. We should get you home. Why don't we drive you, we've got enough room and you shouldn't be driving if you're about to faint."

"I'm not fainting," Alex snapped, eyes still closed as the rushing in his ears rose and fell again. "I have never fainted." He sucked in a slow breath through his nose and released it through his mouth, mumbling, "I may have passed out from pain a time or two, but I have never fainted."

"All right then," Mulder's droll voice cut in. "Before you pass out why don't we get you into our car and get you home. Sit, while we get our coats."

He felt himself being guided to a chair and felt a large hand on the back of his head pressing it forward and down. "Just breathe slowly," came a deep voice from his right. He obeyed without thinking, just wanting the nausea and lightheadedness to settle. He propped his elbows on his thighs as he leaned forward in response to the steady strength in the hand, lowering his head between his knees. He could hear other voices, but they sounded far away, not to mention kind of warbled. Why was it so damn hot in here? He wanted to take off his extra shirt. His skin felt clammy, sweat rising on his scalp and the back of his neck.

"He's been really sick," said a voice close by.

"I'm getting that impression," came Skinner's response, his hand now stroking Alex's back between his shoulder blades.

"He's never missed a day, and then wham... out since last Wednesday. The flu's been vile this year. Half the campus had it. Alex held out longer than most. He still looked pale and tired when he got here tonight." Alex wanted to tell Lara to stop talking, that this man wasn't a friend. But he thought it was probably a better idea to concentrate on the breathing for a little while longer. Her words flowed over him like a cd he couldn't turn off. "And I think... seeing you guys was a little bit of a shock. If I had to hazard a guess." The edge of sarcasm would have made him smile if he wasn't focusing on not puking all over his boots.

"Yeah, it would be a shock. Sort of a shock for us, too."

"I'm getting that impression," Lara tossed back dryly. Suddenly her fingers touched his. He opened his eyes and realized she was squatting next to him. "Alex, can I get you anything? Water?"

He nodded and managed, "Napkin... water." Her hand squeezed his and then she was gone, only to reappear in seconds with a handful of napkins and a glass of water. He clutched the napkins, dunked them in the water and slapped them to the back of his neck, then wiped down his face.

He wished fervently that Skinner's hand didn't feel so damn good rubbing circles on his back. Why the hell he was sitting here letting the man who shot him touch him like this was beyond his understanding.

Feet came into his line of vision... two sets, one big and one little. Both in boots. He lifted his head and realized that in his bent position he was about on eye level with Will. The kid had the most bizarre way of looking at people... or, well... Alex didn't really know. Maybe all three year olds stared like that. Like the little Mulder-cogs were whirring away right behind their eyes. He hardly had a ton of experience with kids.

But somehow, he didn't think so.

"I'll be alright in a minute," he grumbled, lowering his head and wiping his face again.

"Take your time. When you're ready, we'll go."

"I don't recall agreeing to leave with you guys."

Mulder squatted down like Lara had, and now he was on eye level too. He smiled. "And I don't recall giving you a choice," he murmured. Louder, he answered, "We're all cancelled for tonight, and Dora's given me directions to our hotel. If we can even get back down the mountain to get there. May just be staying with you tonight."

"The hell you are."

Mulder grinned. "Alex, we so have to talk. Just... hang on until we can sit down and I can explain some things to you."

Lara's hand settled on his shoulder. "You know, no disrespect and all, Mr. Mulder and... uh..."

"Skinner. Walter Skinner."

"Mr. Skinner. But if Alex doesn't want to go with you, and it sounds like he doesn't, then I don't thi-"

"Oh, he just thinks he doesn't want to go with us." Mulder bounced back to his feet and addressed Lara cheerfully. "Trust me, after he hears what I have to say, he's going to be glad I forced the issue."

"Wanna bet?" Alex eased himself into a sitting position and shrugged Skinner's hand off his back irritably. He caught Mulder eyeing Skinner oddly, and wanted to say 'yeah, tell me about it', but considering Mulder was acting just as strangely, he didn't bother. He looked up at Lara's concerned face and sighed. "It's okay, sweetie. I'll be fine. They're just not my favorite people." Understatement, much? And why are you believing they won't hurt you this time? SHOT YOU. IN THE HEAD.

"Well, in that case," she glanced at Mulder and her eyes settled on Will, then she seemed to come to a decision. She swung her gaze back to Alex and her jaw firmed. "In that case, I think you really ought to let them drive you because you look like shit, Alex."

"Thanks," he snorted, realizing even as he said it that he knew the answer to the question he'd just been asking himself. Not only did Mulder and Skinner appear to be extremely eager to talk to him, which boded well for continued survival, but also, the real kicker... he believed Mulder about Will. He just didn't see himself coming to harm under the watchful gaze of the little boy still staring at him, unblinking. He started to stand up, only to list to the left again and swear under his breath. "Okay! Fine. Just... get me out to the parking lot, will you? Maybe the air will help."

Skinner and Mulder got into their coats and Lara tried to get Alex to put his on but he was too damn hot. He pulled on the hat and looped the scarf around his neck, but tucked the leather jacket and the extra sweater under his arm. Skinner took his arm cautiously but firmly, and guided him out of the chair, with Lara on the other side of him. He didn't want to lean on them but he also didn't want to fall flat on his ass. He'd made enough of a spectacle of himself in front of the small crowd that had still been in the dining hall, some of whom were still milling around in small groups, drinking coffee and sending curious looks his way.

Walking through the smoke-hazed foyer was hell, and he tried not to breath, hoping to keep back the hovering nausea. Stepping out in the cold air was a welcome shock, though, and he sucked in a deep breath, standing with his face turned up to the snow, appreciating the cool wetness slapping him over and over.

"Alex, this cannot be healthy for you. Come on," Lara insisted, tugging on his arm, and reluctantly he let her and Skinner get him down the steps and across the road to the parking lot. The snow was deep around their feet and he could hear Will shrieking with delight, and Mulder laughing. It was a nice sound.

Nice sound?! Cut it OUT!

Well, it was a nice sound. He'd never gotten to hear Mulder laugh much over the years.

They brought him right up to his truck and for a minute he was confused as Lara stepped back and let Skinner guide him up beside the truck. Didn't they want him to not drive? But, given he was feeling better now that he was out in the air, he'd take the opportunity. Maybe he could just keep on driving. He pushed away from Skinner and shifted his jacket to the other arm, digging in the pocket for his keys. He listed slightly to the side, but leaned on his truck for support as he brushed snow from the lock.

"Whoa, what do you think you're doing?" Skinner's hand closed over his and took the keys away.

"What?" he snapped belligerently, making a grab for the hand that moved easily out of reach. "Give those back! This is my truck." He blinked as he realized Skinner had already unlocked and opened the passenger side front door of the black SUV right beside his truck. "Oh."

"You're not driving." Skinner's voice brooked no argument, which raised Alex's hackles instantly.

"We're close enough to walk to my house. What's the big fucking deal? I can-"

"Oh no. No no no." Mulder shook his head as he caught up, Will back in his arms and dusted from head to toe in snow. "What do you think we are, stupid? You're not getting in that truck alone. We'll never see you again."

Alex leaned back against his truck and shook his head, then brushed impatiently at the snow flakes clinging to his eyelashes. "Right. It's a James Bondmobile that will just take to the air the minute I get in."

Mulder laughed as he started to load Will into the back seat, and Skinner just raised an eyebrow. "I wouldn't be surprised," they chorused, then looked at each other in surprise.

"Besides, if we're close enough for you to walk, then you won't have any trouble getting your truck back tomorrow or the next day," Skinner stated, taking Alex's arm and pulling him to the SUV.

Alex jerked his arm away by reflex, fell into Mulder's door, and felt his boots slide sideways in the snow. Skinner caught him with an 'omph' just before he sat down in the snow, and hefted him back to his feet. Alex ignored the sudden shock of full body contact with an effort, and twisted angrily when Skinner didn't release him but forced him backwards toward the waiting front seat.

"Get in the car, Alex, or I will put you in."

Alex snorted as he straightened. "I'd like to see you try," he scoffed, then froze as Skinner took a step forward and started to reach for him. "For fuck's sake, knock it off. I'm getting in!" He hoisted himself up into the seat, ignoring Mulder's snickering. He belted himself in and hugged his jacket to his chest as Skinner swung the door shut and walked around to the driver's side. Mulder finished with Will, and circled to the driver's side as well, climbing in the back.

Lara sidled between the vehicles and knocked on the window. As Skinner started the SUV, Alex rolled down his window with the push of a button, snow blowing in, to Will's delight in the back seat. "Goodnight, sweetie. Thanks so much for handing me over to the enemy. If you never see me again, you know who to call first."

"Alex, don't! They said-"

"I know, I know. I'll be fine. I'm just irritated with certain high-handed attitudes. And what can I say, old habits die hard." He tossed a glare over his shoulder, noting with satisfaction that Skinner was staring down into his lap, expression disconcerted. He looked back at Lara and forced a smile. He wished desperately he could rewind the last hour and be sitting at dinner with her, and decide to get up and leave before dessert, before the Staples Room crowd had even adjourned. He could be home with Sheldon right now, settling into bed with a book. I always knew my sweet tooth would get me in trouble. "Stop looking at me like that. I'll see you tomorrow for tutorial. If I don't show up, you can send out the Mounties, okay? Love those uniforms."

She grinned, but then shook her head. "No, you will not see me for tutorial," she said, her eyes narrowing behind snow covered glasses. "You will stay home in bed, and I will call you and see if you're doing okay and if you need anything. Got it?"

"Don't worry," Mulder called from the back seat, leaning forward. "I'll make sure he stays put if I have to cuff him to the bed myself." He dropped a hand on Alex's shoulder and squeezed.

Alex kept his eyes focused out the window at Lara, trying to block the thousand and one images that came with those words in Mulder's voice. He blamed the rush of heat between his legs on the rising heat of the car battling the cold air from the window. It wasn't quite as easy to explain the blush he could feel in his cheeks, but he hoped either the light was dim enough that Lara wasn't noticing or that if she was, she'd chalk it up to him being sick. The shrewd look in her eyes told him that hope was a lost cause, and he knew she'd very likely already picked up on whatever weird vibe he gave off around these two.

Which was no little worrisome actually, considering if there was any vibe to pick up, Mulder would notice it, and god he hoped he wasn't vibe-ing in Mulder's direction.

Talk about lost cause hopes.

Ignoring the whisper in his head that felt like it was rising directly from his crotch, he nodded, and shrugged off Mulder's lingering hand. "I hear you, and I appreciate your concern. And okay, I'll stay home. One more day. Then I've got the weekend, anyway. Will you put up a notice on my office door?"

"Sure thing. Okay," she glanced at Mulder and Skinner one last time, then met Alex's eyes. "Take care, eh?"

"Yes, ma'am." I'm being driven home in a blizzard by the two men who killed me, and I'm obviously suffering a relapse of whatever stupid debilitating illness this is that's got me weaker than my puppy. Believe me, I'll take care. And a gun or two. And call you in the morning. "I will." Of course, on the plus side, they both seemed delighted to see him and thrilled that he wasn't dead and very interested in 'explaining' things to him, and that was so fucking unlikely that perhaps this was all just a big flu-induced hallucination.

With a final nod, she stepped back, thumping the side of the door twice in a very native Vermonter way, to let them know her feet were out from under their tires, and to send them on their way.

"Thank you, Lara," Skinner said in that voice Alex recognized as his 'sincere delivery'. He'd believed in it himself at one time.

Then suddenly his window was sliding back up, silently cutting out not just the snow and wind but the last person linking him to his new life. He jerked in surprise and looked down at the button stupidly, to see if he'd accidentally pressed it. Then it occurred to him that most vehicles had master controls on the driver's side. He checked and sure enough, Skinner's finger was on his button. Anger flared in his chest again. "I can, in fact, roll up my own window."

Skinner lifted an eyebrow, face implacable. "You're sick, it's cold, and we need to go talk. Enough stalling." He put the car in gear and started backing up.

Alex's mouth dropped open at the sheer gall, and fifteen responses flitted through his head in rapid succession. His tongue couldn't seem to choose which one it wanted, and he realized he hadn't even said goodbye to Lara. He turned back and hit his button again just out of spite but his window didn't budge this time. Grinding his teeth, he knew without even checking that Skinner had punched the master lock. He looked out the window and lifted his fingers in a wave to the slight figure still standing by his truck as they pulled away.

"Nice girlfriend you got there, Krycek," Mulder teased from the back seat. Alex ignored him and stared sullenly at the windshield wipers trying to move the heavy snow. They hadn't brushed the car off, so as they headed down the first long dip in the road, more snow slid off the roof and overloaded the wipers. Alex could sympathize. He felt about like one of those wipers right now. Mini-avalanche sweeping over him. He wanted his house, and he wanted his bed, and he wanted his puppy. And maybe a hot chocolate. And a couple of Aleve. And okay, yes, his gun, under his pillow.

And he did NOT want a Mulder or a Skinner anywhere in his space.

"Where am I going?" Skinner asked, jarring him out of his thoughts.

"To hell?" He was still pissed about the stupid window thing. It was just so... Skinner.

"Cute. Seriously though. Because you know, I can drive all night, or we can just pull over and have a nice little chat while the car does an igloo impression. But we'd probably all be more comfortable at your place."

Comfortable is not what I'd call it. Still, the thought of Sheldon made Alex pause. He doubted Skinner was kidding. "About a half mile, on your left. The log house. You can see it from the road."

In seconds, they pulled into his yard, and Alex couldn't get out of the car fast enough. Despite Skinner telling him to wait, that he'd help him to the house, Alex vaulted from the car and made it to the house and up the front steps by the time Skinner and Mulder were barely out their respective doors. As he unlocked his front door, he entertained the very seductive idea of going inside and locking them out.

But, this was Mulder he was talking about, in a "determined mood". Somehow, he could see a determined Mulder climbing through his window, or picking the lock on his door, or finding some way to come through the chimney like a demented Santa Claus... or hell... shooting off the doorknob.

So he closed the door behind him but left it unlocked, and sucked in a slow, calming breath. He did his normal arriving-home routine... check the stove, turn on lights, check on Sheldon (asleep), hang up jacket, take off boots, put on moccasins so he didn't step in any snow splotches in just socks. He thought about starting hot water or coffee, then decided he hadn't invited them to his house, he sure as hell didn't need to play host.

Walking to the living room, he settled in his favorite comfortable chair with a relieved sigh. His turf. His terms. This should definitely help him feel more stable, more grounded. More secure. They wanted to talk to him. Seemed desperate to. He didn't have to say a word. Didn't have to do anything but sit here and listen in silence and then tell them to get the hell out.

So as he stared at the door, waiting for them to come in, heart beating in his throat, hands clutching the chair arms to keep the fine trembling from showing, he wondered why the last thing he felt was secure.

pov change

Walter watched Alex stride toward the house and huffed out an exasperated sound. "I told him to wait."

"And he's always minded so well. Honestly!" Mulder arched an eyebrow at Walter and went back to unbuckling Will.

Walter sighed and closed his door. He knew Mulder was right, but the way Alex had been wobbling at the school concerned him. He realized with a start he'd never seen Alex sick, or incapacitated. The arm, before, just didn't seem to count. Which sounded downright absurd... certainly it counted. But Alex always appeared so adapted to it. He was used to an invincible, invulnerable Alex Krycek, and he didn't quite know how to handle the upwelling of concern that came with seeing him so pale and shaky, obviously still recovering from something really nasty, and practically fainting.

Ah yes... check that. Passing out. Alex obviously didn't faint. Walter rolled his eyes as he waited for Mulder to climb out with Will. Maybe it had to do with having Alex handed back to him so suddenly, so unexpectedly. To have him dropped back into his life like a shiny gift, only to see him physically vulnerable and obviously trying to slap up an unaffected front... it was calling up too many feelings like those helpless sensations when he sat in that damn room, tied to a luxury chair, watching the view from a set of parking garage security cameras.

As Mulder gained his feet outside the car, Walter cleared his throat. "It's got to be him. He was Xealot. It only makes sense."

Mulder nodded. "And I know just the thing to get him to admit it." He grinned, and it had an evil gleam to it, even in the dim, snowy evening. He was eyeing the house with a hungry expression, and something flared hot and uncomfortable in Walter's chest. He recognized it as jealousy even as his hand reached out and gripped Mulder's arm. Mulder glanced at his hand, then at him, and an annoyed impatience crossed his face.

"Mulder..."

"Look, I really do need to discuss some things with Alex. I'm not sure why you're being quite so solicitous to him, after everything that happened..." The pause hung in the air. "But maybe it's time we talked about this anyway."

Walter's fingers spasmed on Mulder's arm and he gripped tighter. "Mulder, there are things we do need to talk about, that we haven't. I have things I need to explain to you, too." And maybe, given your first reaction was to hug the man rather than haul off and start beating on him, we can actually have this conversation.

Mulder huffed out an irritated sigh and turned back toward the house. "Then let's get in there before he finds a pair of snow shoes and goes out a back window." Breaking out of Walter's grip, he plowed through the snow toward the porch, speaking to Will in that low, measured voice he used when he was communicating verbally and telepathically at the same time.

Walter locked up the SUV and followed, tilting his head down and lifting his coat collar. The log home wasn't exactly what he'd expected of Alex, and he found himself eager to get inside, for more than just the anticipated dry warmth. Alex Krycek. Alive. Alive and well. Mostly. With two arms and a log cabin and college students. Alex. Warm and breathing and alive. The constant thrum of excitement that had begun the minute he'd actually laid hands on the apparition heightened with each passing minute. All the old guilty, suppressed longings and emotions bubbled up. And Alex had been on their side, in the end. Did things have to stay suppressed?

He realized in a flash as Mulder opened the front door and stomped the snow off his boots, what the hot, fluttery feeling inside was all about. After having lost all chance of... of anything over two years ago when he'd watched Alex Krycek die, after having lived with that haunting him for over two years, his perspective had shifted radically. Life really was too damn short. Things changed in the blink of an eye, in the squeeze of a trigger. Changed, and in seemingly irrevocable ways that created life-long regrets and horrible dreams for years to come.

Second chances didn't happen every day.

Without even realizing it, the minute he'd laid eyes on Alex, the minute he'd laid hands on him and confirmed he was flesh and blood, real and human, he'd made the decision. He would make the man his. They would work out whatever they had to, talk it all through, fight and scream and make sense of all the madness, but he'd already decided. Whatever force had granted him a second chance, he wasn't going to waste it. He would do everything in his power to make this man realize how he felt, how he'd always felt, and what possibilities might lie ahead now that certain truths had come to light.

He caught the front door in his hand and took one last bracing breath of the icy cold, clean Vermont air. His eyes focused on the man crouched just inside the door, stripping the winter gear off his son. The biggest obstacle to those possibilities was right in front of him.

pov change

Mulder could hardly contain his building excitement as he helped Will out of his coat and boots. Will was already staring at Alex again, and Mulder could feel that little brain ticking away. Will's unnatural calmness around Alex, the intensity of his focus on the man, seemed like only too clear of a sign.

Even his son knew it. The man was meant to be in their lives. There for the claiming, handed back to them, restored and whole.

He knew it would take some work. Convincing. Sorting out old hurts and betrayals. Finding a way through the minefield of their past. Careful talk, a lot of gentle persuasion. Seduction, if it came right down to it.

He made a mental note to start being very careful to edit his thoughts about Alex in the presence of his too-prescient son.

Whatever it took. This was too good to pass up. The man he'd always hated because he cared too damned much. The man who seemed to be his shadow, his foil, his strange constant in a shifting world. When he'd been taken away, Mulder had been stunned at how devastated he was.

And here he was. Given back. Mulder took in good nature all the various jibes people tossed his way about being self-centered. He felt completely confident of certain things revolving around him. And Alex Krycek was one of the ones he felt most confident about. Alex had always spun around him, alternately running away and being pulled back, like a moon in orbit around Mulder's gravitational pull. Mulder felt a deep certainty, the kind of certainty that had caused him to accept the odd little invitation from Marlboro College in the first place.

He'd been drawn here. He was here for a reason, and that reason sat in the big red chair across the room, staring at him like he'd grown a few extra heads. He knew. Knew from the ends of his hair to the tips of his toes. Alex Krycek was here for him.

Brushing the snow from Will's hair, he stood and took off his own coat. He glanced over at the man in the chair, sitting stiff and pale. "Shoes on or off?"

The question seemed the last thing Alex expected, and Mulder hid a smile. Exactly. Keep him off guard, keep him guessing, keep him from burrowing down behind his barricades too easily.

"I don't care," Alex finally answered, his forehead crinkling in a frown.

Mulder nodded and bent to remove his boots, as he heard Skinner shut the door behind him. He felt a resurgent frisson of irritation and wished he could just wave a wand and make the other man disappear. Seduction with a big bald third wheel along would be a lot harder. And he really didn't care for the way Skinner's eyes were glued to Alex, and had been from the minute he appeared. What the hell was that all about? He shot him for fuck's sake. He gunned him down without a glimmer of emotion or regret or...

Mulder drew in a breath and forced his thoughts to stop. Will was standing placidly, looking up at him with a thoughtful expression. Mulder forced a smile and centered his thoughts, reaching for Jeremiah's teachings. He cleared his mind of the jumble of confusion and focused on the radiance he felt knowing Alex was alive.

Will rewarded him with a wide, happy grin, and turned to the room again, toddling across the bare wood floor toward Alex. Stopping halfway there, he glanced back at his father and held out a hand.

"Oh right!" Mulder reached into his inside coat pocket and drew out Exhibit A. Turning back to the room, he held up the weasel and gave it a healthy squeak. "Can't forget the favorite toy, can we." Will gave a coo of delight and reached out both hands, and the weasel zinged across the room like it had wings, straight to Will's arms. He clutched it to his chest and hugged it tight.

The minute he'd produced it, Mulder's eyes fastened on Alex. The thrill of triumph shot through him as he watched Alex's set, irritated expression melt into one of surprise and wonder. His stiff posture relaxed and his hand lifted from the chair, reaching out as if to beckon Will closer.

"You... that...," Alex stuttered for a moment, then managed, "Your favorite?"

Will turned back to Alex, still cradling the weasel. He ran the rest of the way across the room and leaned on Alex's knees, holding the weasel up, giggling. "Favorite!" he confirmed. He patted Alex's thigh and looked up at him gravely for a long moment, and Mulder could practically see the smoke rising from the little head. Finally, clear as a bell, still staring at Alex, he said simply, "Thank you."

Alex's face looked like he'd been hit in the back of the head with a two-by-four. His mouth hung gaping, and if his eyes got any bigger they'd eat his face.

"AH HA!" Mulder crowed, punching the air with his fist. "I knew it! Proof! It was you!"

Alex tore his eyes away from the little boy still patting his thigh in a comforting manner. "I don't know what you're talking about," he snapped, his voice even huskier than usual. "And will you get your kid, please. That's a wood stove."

Mulder just laughed merrily. "Don't worry about it. Will's a genius. Aren't you, kiddo?" He grinned at Will's laugh. "He won't get too near the stove." Even as he said it, he sent a clear image of the pain of a burn from the touch of the stove. Will looked back at him and nodded, his expression clearly saying 'duh, Dad.' Mulder grinned wider. "By the way, you haven't officially met my son. Alex Krycek, Will Scully. Will, this is Daddy's old friend Alex."

Alex shot Mulder another murderous glare at the 'old friend' bit, but softened noticeably as he looked down at the little Mulder in front of him.

"Alex," the boy enunciated carefully.

"Yes. Alex. Uh... nice to meet you, Will."

Mulder watched shrewdly, seeing Alex's discomfort at being on the recipient end of that strange, unearthly regard of Will's. "Yeah, and don't bother lying about not being Xealot. Remember, Will's telepathic," he tossed off casually, coming in and sprawling on the couch.

Alex's flushed face went pale again, and Mulder swore he could practically see the man recoil further into the chair, trying to draw away from the boy. Will, apparently oblivious, plunked down at Alex's feet and started making the weasel dance in front of him, humming softly. Mulder recognized a tune he'd heard Doggett singing to the boy on more than one occasion. Little bugger probably missed John. For all that Will was a miniature Mulder, John doted on him with the boundless affection of a man completely smitten with the child's mother, not to mention a man born to be a father.

Alex was clutching the chair arms again, and staring at Will like he was a small but deadly animal. Mulder had seen that kind of expression on the faces of nature specialists studying Tasmanian devils in the wild, or handling poisonous snakes. He bit his lip to keep from laughing out loud. Alex cleared his throat twice before he managed to say, "Is he... a... um... ?"

"Clone?" Mulder asked. "We don't know, exactly. He appears to be a very close genetic copy in some ways, but there are interesting divergences that don't actually rule out the possibility that he was created with cloning technology, and implanted, as opposed to the artificial insemination actually taking." He shrugged. "We've decided we don't really care, and certainly not enough to subject the poor kid to all kinds of tests over and over again. To us, he's a miracle, and we're treating him as such. A particularly adorable miracle, at that." He noted his reminder of Will's cuteness didn't lessen Alex's poisonous-snake-reaction. He hated to give up a perceived advantage, but he also didn't want to make the back-window-getaway look more appealing. "Relax, Alex. He's not picking up every thought word for word. Near as we can tell, it's mostly emotional states he can zero in on the best. With me it's a little different but... that's a whole 'nother story. Besides. He's three. There's a lot he doesn't pick up on." We hope.

That seemed to settle Alex at least a little. Made Mulder wonder what thoughts Alex was most concerned about Will picking up. At the moment, all things considered, most likely nothing too complimentary to Daddy or Uncle Walter. And speaking of Uncle Walter... Mulder glanced around and noted that at some point during the weasel stage, Skinner had taken a seat in a second chair on the other side of the stove, a beige upholstered platform rocker. He looked five kinds of uncomfortable, and Mulder had another moment of fervent wishing that he could make him disappear and talk to Alex alone. Giving a mental shrug, he turned back to his quarry and sat forward, elbows on knees.

"So Alex... let's not even bother doing the Xealot dance. That was you. Thank you. For everything you did. That couldn't have been easy, or particularly safe."

"Yes," Skinner spoke up suddenly. "We... everyone owes you quite a bit, Alex. We couldn't have done this without your information, your leads-"

"And obviously your work with the Rebels, getting them to trust enough to help, to work together with a human resistance."

"Thank Jeremiah Smith," Alex responded shortly. "It was his idea, and his plan, and he had as much to do with it as I did."

"I'm willing to bet he was never in the kind of danger you were in, leaking Consortium secrets and trying to keep them from finding out you were actually alive," Skinner cut in.

Alex shrugged, his voice going caustic. "Like it mattered. If they'd figured it out, I'd just have been actually dead. Hardly a change for you guys, right?"

"Alex-" they both chorused at once, then stopped, and glared at each other.

"Can you just let me get some things cleared up, Mulder?" Skinner demanded, in full-on 'boss' mode.

Mulder snorted. He was in no mood to put up with it. All the anger at Skinner that he'd held back - barely - over the years, bubbled up. It was as if getting Alex back made him realize exactly how pissed off he was at Skinner, for taking him away so brutally, so permanently. "Actually, I'd like to get some things cleared up myself." Meeting Alex's eyes, Mulder projected every ounce of sincerity and honesty he possibly could. "Alex, I don't care what they told you, or if you saw the tape, what you think you saw. I wasn't there that night. You have to believe me. I wouldn't have just stood there like that. Was that anything like me? Honestly? How many chances did I have to kill you over the years? And I never followed up on any of them. I couldn't even kill you when they had me drugged to the gills and paranoid. I sure as hell would never just stand there and let... and let him do that." The furious undertone was rising as he spit out the final words.

Alex's reaction was a confused stare and a slight shake of his head, as if he wasn't sure he'd heard right... but Skinner's reaction was what took Mulder by surprise.

"WHAT?" The man exploded from his chair, suddenly towering over the room, somehow larger in his anger. "You... not... the hell you weren't! You were there! What did they do, edit you into the film? Get a stand in?" And suddenly, even as he said the words, Skinner looked like he'd been hit in the stomach. "Oh my God... stand in... you too?" He fell back into his chair like a sack of flour, and the frame creaked ominously.

"It was a bounty hunter." Mulder tilted his head to the side, studying Skinner, a horrible thought suddenly occurring. No. That would have been just... too... and why? Why would they have...? He shook his head sharply and turned back to Alex. "Alex, you have to believe me, you've seen what they can do. The Colonists, they kidnapped me. I was at the hospital with Doggett, after seeing Skinner. Making sure he was okay after Billy Miles hit him in the head. That's the last thing I remember... being at the hospital. Then I woke up on a table... or... or something. I was tied down, there was a bounty hunter. A morph. You know what I mean. It was one of the same ones who had been there when I... when I was abducted. There was a bank of monitors... he had the Hoover parking garage camera looped in. I... he made me watch the whole thing, and I couldn't... it was a bounty hunter, and it was supposed to shoot you. It was supposed to kill you, because the Colonists knew how dangerous you were. They wanted you out of the way, you were too much of a wild card. And I couldn't do anything, all I could do was lay there and watch while you talked to that thing, thinking it was me... and it was going to kill you. Until he showed up and took care of that." He pointed an accusing finger at Skinner. The look on Skinner's face made him falter, though, and his hand dropped back to his lap.

"You idiot," Skinner growled. "It happened to you, and you don't realize the same damn thing happened to me? Would I do that? Would I gun down a man in cold blood? Would I shoot someone in the leg, in the arm, disable him, and then go ahead and kill him anyway? Would I kill Alex?" Skinner was on his feet again, though Mulder had an idea he didn't even realize he'd stood.

"Yes," Mulder said simply. "He'd been torturing you. I knew it. He'd been blackmailing you, and the nanocytes... I knew the pressure you were under. I could tell how much you hated it, hated him. I knew he represented the Consortium to you, and... why wouldn't you?"

"Oh, I don't know... maybe because I'm a decent man! Because I'm still me! Jesus Christ, Mulder, what the hell does it take to convince you? All I did for you and Scully, for the X Files, over the years, and you can still believe this? You've believed this all along? Knowing that it wasn't you there, it didn't even occur to you it might not be me?"

"Why the hell would it have occurred to me?! You weren't there with me! You weren't there in that fucking room with me, strapped down and watching!"

"No! I was tied to a chair in the Consortium offices! They had their own morph in on the game. It wasn't me, Mulder! I didn't... I wouldn't do that. I can't believe you..."

"Well, you obviously believed it was me, standing there just letting you shoot him down."

"He killed your father!"

"I hated my fucking father!"

Silence descended suddenly on the room, and Mulder realized he was standing, too. He didn't remember rising, didn't remember Will crossing the room and wrapping his arms around his leg, whimpering into his jeans. And he had no idea where the little black puppy had come from, practically bouncing on its feet, barking loudly at both he and Skinner.

Catching his breath he reached down and plucked Will up into his arms and sat on the couch, cuddling the boy close and rocking him back and forth. "Oh baby, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Daddy's sorry." He closed his eyes and focused his internal eyes on the bright glowing light that was Will. The light pulsed wildly, like it had back when Mulder had first learned to see it. He formed mental hands and stroked the light, smoothing the jagged edges, wrapping it in a blanket of himself, of his love. Pushing back the anger and the fear and the hate and all the tearing emotions, he held his son tight and breathed slow and steady. As he calmed, he felt Will's little hand stroking his hair over and over, just as he stroked the boy's back. He lifted his head, tears in his eyes as he looked at Will. Will's big eyes stared up at him.

"Daddy feel better?" he whispered.

Mulder smiled down at him and nodded. "Yes, sweetie, Daddy feels better. I'm so sorry I scared you. I didn't mean to, Will. I was surprised, I wasn't angry with you, you know that." He formed a shaky mental image of himself smiling brightly at Will, no hint of anger or upset touching the projection. Will leaned forward and rested his head on Mulder's chest. He settled his chin on Will's head and finally looked at the rest of the room again.

Skinner stood, silent, looking shamefaced and tired as he watched Will. Alex still sat, expression unreadable, the black puppy in his lap much as Will was in Mulder's, whimpering, pressing closer, looking for comfort, settling only under Alex's gentle stroking.

Puppy? Alex Krycek with a puppy? Mulder's mind stuttered and jumped the track for a moment. That was just... wow.

Finally, as the silence stretched, Mulder drew in a slow breath. "So. With you it was the Consortium. What do you think, hedging their bets? Making sure things got done?"

"I don't know," Skinner shook his head. "I don't think they knew the Colonists had sent in their own agent, as... as you. They were talking like it was their job. Like the Colonists had come to them and told them in no uncertain terms to take Krycek out, and they were responding."

Mulder nodded. "So it was the Colonists hedging their bets. That makes sense. Seems like there were plenty of times the Consortium didn't hold up their end of the deal, so to speak. And Alex had certainly proven plenty difficult to kill by that point. They likely wanted to be sure."

"Mulder. I'm... it didn't even enter my head. How coincidental would things have to be, to have both of us replaced by morphs? It never even occurred to me. I thought... I thought you didn't care. Or that you approved. I didn't... couldn't tell you. I didn't know how to. I was so torn up over it and you... you'd just stood there. I kept waiting, that night, while I watched, for you to do something, stop that thing. I should have thought-"

Mulder shook his head. "I'm sorry, Walter. It didn't occur to me, either, and it should have. I knew it wasn't like you. I just-" He trailed off, not knowing what else to say. The last two years of resentment and silence, cold distance, seemed so pointless. If only they'd talked... said something. Skinner hadn't shot Alex after all. Didn't hate Alex.

Didn't hate Alex. Didn't...

Oh fuck. I was right. He was thrilled to see Alex. It didn't make any sense but now it sure as hell does. He mentally reviewed what Skinner had just shouted in his anger... 'would I kill Alex?' Obviously he wouldn't, if he was that vehement about the very possibility. Even after everything that had happened between the two of them.

Suddenly his plans for seduction didn't seem quite so straightforward.

pov change

Alex petted Sheldon mechanically, the nuzzling puppy sensing his distress and responding. He listened to the strange exchange of apologies, and felt the weight of both their regards shift back to him. He scratched behind Sheldon's ears, and forced a calm he didn't feel as he looked back and forth between them.

"Very impressive." He tucked Sheldon under one arm and stood, slowly. The dizziness seemed to have passed, but he wasn't taking any chances. "Really, very convincing. Inventive, too. Points for imagination." He crossed the room between them, walking to the front door. "And you couldn't have had much time to work that out between you. Unless you knew I was here before you came. But whatever." He swung open the front door and stood to one side. "Now get the hell out of my house."

Neither moved as the howl of wind brought snow flying in through the door. Sheldon, calmed by now, looked up at his master as if the man was deranged.

"But Alex," Mulder sat up straighter. "Don't you understand what we're saying? It wasn't us. Neither of us! I never realized. I knew it wasn't me, but I thought it really was Walter. But it wasn't him either. Neither of us had any intent to kill you, and neither of us wanted it to happen."

"I wouldn't do that, Alex, you have to believe me. I would never do that... to you." Skinner's voice caught and roughened. He looked uncomfortable, and his eyes skittered away from Alex's gaze.

"Oh, I understand. I understand that the two of you expect me to believe this... story about both of you being replaced by morphs, at the same time, on the same night that you happened to kill me," Alex pointed at Skinner, "while you," he swung the finger to Mulder, "stood around and watched with about as much concern as if he'd been swatting a fly. How convenient! A real master plan. And let's see, it wasn't even the same people, isn't that what you're suggesting? The Consortium got you, and the Colonists got you, and the Rebels got me. Never mind that you'd both hated me for years, and threatened to kill me plenty of times, the night you actually did it, it wasn't you. It was an alien. The aliens did it! Hey, why not, it's an easy answer these days, isn't it? You're not the only one using that defense you know. Have you heard there are others, once they found out the aliens could morph? Claiming it was aliens doing whatever they'd gone to jail for, just wearing their face." Alex laughed, and winced when he heard the hysterical note. He forced himself to stop babbling and waved at the door again. "Great. The aliens killed me. Now get out."

Skinner and Mulder stared at each other, then back at him. Alex pointed out the door. He was getting sick of standing here in the cold wind, but he'd be damned if he'd fall for this crap. This drivel that they didn't want him dead, that they cared whether he lived or died.

Mulder lifted an eyebrow at Skinner. "I don't think he believes us."

Skinner nodded. "I'm getting that impression."

"GET. OUT. I'm losing my patience. I've had enough. I'm not listening to anymore of this shit."

Mulder murmured something to Will, and set him down on the sofa. Will nodded and sat quietly as Mulder stood and joined Skinner, walking toward Alex. "Come back in and sit down, Alex. Let's talk. I understand it sounds crazy, but... hey, you want to talk crazy? You're alive. To us, that's as shocking and as earth shattering as you finding out it wasn't really us. We've all had a hell of a night."

"It's a lot to take in, but I can't just leave, Alex. Especially with you not believing us." Skinner shook his head. "And you're sick. Please. You need to get out of that wind."

Alex sucked in a calming breath and carefully placed Sheldon on the floor, then straightened and ground out between clenched teeth, "Get the hell out of my house right now before I throw you out bodily and don't think I won't do it and don't think I can't."

He saw the speaking look flash between Mulder and Skinner, and had a moment of crystal clarity of exactly what they were going to do even before they moved. It was as if his brain simply wouldn't react fast enough to do anything about the knowledge. As it was, he did manage to take a step backward and start to bring up his arm, but it was too little too late as they both sprang at him, each catching an arm and pulling him forward, Skinner avoiding a sharp kick with a twist that looked far too graceful for a man of his size, Mulder shoving the door shut with his foot and snagging a scarf off the coat hooks all in one move. One on either arm, they steered him back into the room, ignoring his shouts and struggles, and Sheldon's mad barking.

"DAMN IT! Let me GO. Get your HANDS off me... stop... I said STOP it... don't you even think about-"

Alex twisted madly against their grips and tried to plant his feet but the moccasins slid most unhelpfully on the wood floor, and between the two of them they dragged him to the chair Walter had vacated with distressing ease. Stupid... fucking... flu... anyway. They forced him to sit despite his attempts to arch his body out of the chair, and Mulder wrapped the scarf around the arm of the chair, up over Alex's wrist, and tied it off. He stretched the other end across Alex's lap and Skinner tied the other hand to the opposite chair arm. Alex let out a yowl of pure frustration, but Mulder was straightening up and dusting his hands off in satisfaction.

"There. We said we'd cuff you to the chair if we had to, to make you listen. And we meant it. You're going to listen to us. You should be thankful we went with the more comfortable restraints. We do have our cuffs with us."

Alex concentrated on breathing in and out through his nose, and glaring daggers at Mulder. "Great example you're setting for your son, Mulder."

"Oh, don't worry about that. I told him before we came over that we're playing a game we're all familiar with, and that we're not doing anything that will hurt you." He turned and waved at Will, who waved back and then settled down on his side on the couch cushions. "Hmm... he's getting tired. You don't mind if I take him in to your bedroom so he can lie down, do you? Didn't think you would."

Without waiting for a response, Mulder crossed the room and lifted Will off the couch, murmuring softly to him. Alex clearly heard 'puppy?' from the boy, and next thing he knew, Mulder was crouching down beside Sheldon, holding out a hand and coaxing the stressed out puppy into Will's reach. Will plunked himself down on the floor and giggled happily as Sheldon came closer and sniffed him. Will touched him carefully, petting the floppy, silky ears with one finger, then patting him on the head. Sheldon seemed to go boneless immediately under Will's attention, and nuzzled close, licking his face.

Alex groaned at the sight. "Traitor," he muttered.

Mulder just flashed him a smug smile. "What's the puppy's name, Alex?"

Alex heaved a put-upon sigh but couldn't think of any good reason to withhold the information. "Sheldon."

"Want to take Sheldon in with you?" Will immediately agreed to this idea, and Mulder led the boy down the short hallway, poking around for the bathroom and the bedroom, the puppy trotting along behind.

Alex transferred his glare to Skinner, with about as much effect. "You guys are really pissing me off," Alex snarled, working his arms against the scarf.

Skinner shrugged and stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jeans, staring at the floor. "I don't know about Mulder, but I'll take the risk if it gives me a little more time to convince you that I didn't have anything to do with 'killing' you, and that I wouldn't do that. You don't know what it was like, Alex, thinking that the last thing you'd known on this earth was the thought that I was the one shooting you." He lifted his head to meet Alex's eyes and real pain flashed across his face. "I couldn't stand it. It's haunted me for over two years. But there was nothing I could do about it. You know what that's like? I'm going to take an educated guess that you do. It's hell, pure and simple. Things done that you can't undo, that you can't change and can't even explain. Something so final, so irrevocable. Until now." His face cleared. "Forgive me for being willing to get you a little ticked off in the name of getting through to you how sorry I am for what happened, and that it wasn't me."

Alex tilted his head back on the chair and closed his eyes. "So I'm just supposed to believe you guys actually cared whether I lived or died. That you mourned me. That you didn't want to see me dead."

"Yes."

"You guys are crazier than I am."

"Possibly, but on the plus side? We're telling the truth."

"If you're trying to convince me how much you really really do like me after all, you've got a funny way of showing it." Alex lifted his fingers and waggled them. "This feels familiar and doesn't exactly bring back pleasant memories."

"Sorry. But take it as an expression of our faith."

Alex's nose crinkled between his closed eyes. "What?"

"We believe you when you say you'd throw us out bodily. We're not taking any chances. If we could take the chance, I'd be telling you to go to bed and get some rest, and we could talk about this tomorrow. You look like hell and I hate that we're probably making you sicker. But it's too much of a risk and we all know it. In the mood you're in, thinking what you do of us, you'd be out of here and then I'd be doubly worried because not only did we fuck up your new life for you but you're out on the road in a blizzard, and sick to boot."

Opening his eyes, he stared tiredly at Skinner. His energy was waning and he had a headache pounding behind his eyes. He wished they would just disappear. He wondered if he screamed loud enough if the aliens would hear him. "For fuck's sake, Skinner, what the hell makes me suddenly so precious to you? You do realize how insanely fucking BIZARRE that sounds to me?"

Skinner's face split in a slow, sad smile. "Losing you."

"What?"

"Losing you made you precious to me, Alex. Losing you without any chance to resolve anything. Losing you without ever discussing... everything." He made a vague motion with his hand.

"Everything?" Alex gave him a skeptical look. "What's 'everything?' Me killing you? Blackmailing you? Betraying you? Compromising your precious integrity?"

Skinner smiled wider and Alex thought it was one of the more disturbing sights he'd ever seen... Walter Skinner standing in his living room in flannel and denim, hands in his pockets, looking shy and awkward, and smiling at him. While he was tied to a chair, no less. With a scarf.

Disturbing was definitely not overstating the case, not the least of which because Walter Skinner had a really nice smile, and he was noticing that fact, which set off great big huge red alarm bells in his head.

"How about killing me and then bringing me back to life? When you weren't supposed to, because I was supposed to stay dead." At that, Alex jerked in surprise, but Skinner just continued. "Yeah, heard about that one from the horse's mouth. And then there's blackmailing me in a twisted effort to save Mulder's life, which, incidentally, worked. And of course, turning into the single most effective undercover operative in the war on the aliens, all anonymously. I'd say offhand that's a lot to discuss. Resolve." He dipped his head again, and added softly, "And... there's also the... other things. The things I... I realized I wanted to say to you when I thought there was absolutely no way to ever say them. About... how I felt, how I still feel, about you. And old confusions and... misunderstandings... and... well. All that."

Alex felt his throat go dry. "How you... feel?" Jesus Christ. He wasn't hearing this. This entire night was a fever dream, there was no other explanation. There couldn't be any other explanation.

"So what did I miss," Mulder said loudly, coming around the corner from the hall. "Got him convinced we're telling the truth yet?" He walked directly over to the chair and put a hand on Alex's shoulder, squeezing gently.

Alex stared up at him blankly, still stuck on Walter Skinner wanting to discuss his feelings. For Alex. "Huh?" he said intelligently, then winced. At the very least, he didn't have to demonstrate how off balance he was.

Just then, a stuffed weasel levitated off the floor and floated by, right about at eye level. Alex stared at it as it passed, and started laughing. The hysteria was back, but he didn't honestly care. He couldn't help it. Flying weasels and Walter Skinner discussing his feelings just went too well together.

pov change

Walter stiffened as Mulder reappeared, then felt a surge of pure aggression when the other man walked over to Alex and gripped his shoulder. It was such a clear communication of possession that Walter had to stamp down on the instant desire to charge in and bat him away from Alex physically. Mulder couldn't have made it more obvious that he'd heard the end of Walter's exchange with Alex, and was waving his own red flag of challenge in what Walter strongly suspected would soon become the contest for Alex's affections.

Only the unprecedented sight of Alex Krycek dissolving into what could only be described as hysterical laughter jarred him out of what he recognized belatedly as his own primitive male instincts kicking in. He didn't know that he'd ever seen Alex laugh before, to say nothing of this. The most he could remember was the smirk.

Granted, he was used to objects taking to the air when around Will, but somehow he doubted the weasel was the only thing setting Alex off. Mulder was looking down at him in concern, too. Walter took a step closer. "Breathe, Alex, you're going to hyperventilate."

Alex sucked in a breath and started laughing again, shaking his head helplessly. "This is just... too... weird," he gasped. "Flying weasels." He went off into a paroxysm of stifled giggles, which, if Walter were not feeling so concerned, he'd find quite charming. "I've decided you're all just one big hallucination," Alex pronounced. "I obviously od'd on the Theraflu, or Nyquil, or something."

Mulder glanced over at Walter and sighed. "From not believing what we say, straight to not believing we even exist. Things are going from bad to worse, here."

Walter nodded. Whatever male rivalry was rising between he and Mulder, he realized they both had a vested interest in getting Alex calmed down and listening to them, and Mulder at least appeared to be ready to work together to get there. He could do as much.

Besides, he didn't want Mulder coming off looking more reasonable and mature. Maybe Alex liked that in a man. Mulder already had youth and looks on his side; Walter wasn't handing him any additional advantages.

"Alex, if we untie you, will you promise not to throw us out?" Walter asked.

"Oh, hell no." Alex bit his lip and choked back another laugh. "You let me up and you are so out of here." He stopped laughing suddenly and looked vexed. "I mean... no. That's not... of course you can untie me. I'll be the perfect host. I'll even offer you refreshments." A chortle escaped before he managed to clamp his teeth together again.

Walter shook his head at Mulder, and Mulder nodded. "Okay then, tied it is." Mulder walked to the couch and dragged it closer to Alex's chair, then sat down. Walter considered the options, and sat down beside Mulder. Facing Alex, they both leaned forward and waited while he got himself under control.

Drawing slow breaths in through his nose, Alex finally calmed. "Okay, okay. I'm fine now. You just have to admit, this is pretty out there all the way around."

Mulder grinned. "Don't we know it. But hey, we kind of specialize in 'out there,' wouldn't you say?"

Alex slumped in the chair, the laughing fit apparently draining off the last of his energy. "I suppose you're going to tell me you mourned me, too. And didn't want me dead. And maybe you'd like to discuss unresolved feelings, too? That came up when you thought I was gone for good?"

Walter felt his face go hot and studied his hands. The silence held just a moment too long, then Mulder cleared his throat and mumbled, "Well, yeah, actually." Walter almost groaned aloud, but it was nothing he hadn't expected. He glanced over at Mulder and noted with satisfaction that Mulder was as red-faced as he figured he must be, and looked just as awkward.

Alex, meanwhile, just looked pole-axed. He looked back and forth between them and then suddenly screamed full force, "What the FUCK IS IT WITH YOU TWO?"

Mulder lifted his hands immediately. "Alex, Alex, I'm hoping Will is going to drop off in there, shhh..."

"Shhh? Don't SHUSH me in my OWN FUCKING HOUSE while you sit there acting like some insane Mulder-oid being that's had a lobotomy!" His whole body jerked back and forth in the chair, arms yanking against the scarf. "Are you TRYING to drive me crazy? Wasn't killing me once ENOUGH? Do you need to try to make sure I spend the rest of my years in the fucking BRATTLEBORO RETREAT ON A LOCKED WARD?"

"No, Alex, stop... calm down!" Walter raised his hands, unconsciously mimicking the same placating gesture Mulder was using, until he realized that if it were him tied up in his own house, that would be guaranteed to really piss him off. Sure enough, Alex's eyes were sparking green fire. He dropped his hands hurriedly, and tried a completely different tact. "Okay, you don't believe it wasn't us in the garage. So, we killed you. Strike that, I killed you, and Mulder stood around and watched, like an automaton. So help me out here... why would we be so pleased to see you now? We were obviously fine with killing you then, why would we be glad to find you alive? And why would we make up stories about alien morphs taking our place?"

Alex's mouth worked soundlessly for a long moment, then he spat, "I have no idea! But at the moment, my money is riding on you guys finding it entertaining to watch me go completely INSANE."

Walter shook his head. "I assure you, I don't have any interest in watching you go crazy. Something tells me you'd be more dangerous crazy than sane."

Alex rocked his head against the back of the chair and moaned. "I don't know... I don't know why you're both acting like complete nutcases and I sure as hell don't get why you're suddenly so set on me believing you're glad to see me. I just want it to stop. I'm tired, and I'm sick, and I want you both to just go away and leave me alone." He closed his eyes tight, obviously counting in his head, then opened them and looked expectantly at the couch. His face fell when he found them still sitting there. "I suppose it was too much to hope that I just have a really high fever and that you're figments of it," he mumbled. Then just as suddenly he brightened. "Wait... wait a minute... Ha! Maybe you guys are acting all happy to see me and all warm and fuzzy because you figured out I was your source and you feel guilty. I could see that. Fine upstanding law-abiding alien fighters like yourselves, finding out the big bad criminal element is the one who saved your asses and took all kinds of risks doing it. You said it yourself." He sneered. "That's a perfectly plausible reason why you'd be lying to me about alien morphs and implying you'd never have wanted to see me dead." He ended with a triumphant smirk that was so damned familiar and annoying, Walter wanted to leap over the low table between them and kiss it off his face.

Instead, he nodded, putting on a fair show of considering the words. "It's a theory. It could work. Few flaws... such as, Mulder and I are both essentially honest men who aren't in the habit of blaming aliens for things we've done, if we've actually done them. And the fact that even if we'd found out you were Xealot - which we didn't, because we assumed you couldn't possibly be until we saw you tonight - it wouldn't make us change a story about what happened two and a half years ago. It might make us apologize for killing you, when you turned around and did right by us after we'd done it, but it wouldn't make us tell you stories about being impersonated by morphs. Think, Alex. You already know the answer to this one. It's the only thing that makes sense."

Mulder, who had been unusually quiet, spoke up. "Think back to that night, in the garage. I imagine it's pretty traumatic for you, but give it some real thought. Were either of us acting like ourselves? I mean I've known all along it wasn't me, but I just found out tonight it wasn't Walter. And looking back at it, I can see exactly what he means. Shooting you like that... it just wasn't him. Surely you can see that. And when have you ever seen me calm around you?! Ever? You think I'm going to stand there and calmly watch you die? When I had full warning with the first two shots? I'm not exactly the kind of guy to not react."

Walter snorted, but didn't say anything to that. Instead, he just nodded encouragingly at Alex. "Exactly. Think it through. Even though I hate the idea of asking you to put yourself back in that garage, give it some real thought. Think of how we were acting. You have to see that it just wasn't us."

Alex scowled at him. "Yeah well, I don't exactly watch the video on a regular basis. I just saw it that once, while it was happening. Forgive me, but I never really wanted to see it a second time. It's not quite light entertainment viewing. What I saw of the two of you... I don't know... you looked like you, even sounded like-"

"Wait." Walter shook his head, confused. "Video? You saw video while it was happening? How-"

"Fucking hell," Mulder breathed. "The aliens didn't heal you. It wasn't you either! Was it?"

Alex gave him a withering look. "Oh, and I suppose you're going to tell me you're only just figuring that out."

Mulder threw his head back and laughed. "Oh man! No wonder you're having a hard time believing this! How... how fucking absurd can you get? All three of us!"

Walter shook his head again, realizing what Mulder was implying, and what Alex had just implicitly confirmed. "Another one? Another... morph?"

Alex transferred his flat gaze over to Walter. "A rebel. They morph, too. You know. You've seen it."

"Of course... yes. Holy fucking hell. Unbelievable! I just... whoa. What are the chances? All three of us... and them with all their carefully laid plans," he started snickering in spite of himself. It really was too funny. "Do you think any of them realized?" He turned to Mulder, how was wiping his eyes on his shirt sleeve.

"I have no idea," Mulder gasped. "I don't think they did. Honestly. I think they were all working independently and-" He started laughing again, falling against the back of the couch.

Alex narrowed his eyes, but Walter noticed he looked more confused than angry at the moment. "You guys didn't guess this first thing? That isn't why you cooked up this stupid 'it wasn't me it was a morph' story?"

"No, why would we?" he answered. It had never even occurred to him, not once in the years of regret and pain, that it might not have been Alex. "I just assumed they healed you. We know Jeremiah Smith can heal about anything. They healed your arm, who knows? Maybe a gun shot direct to the brain would be nothing to Smith. The morph of me had taken care of the body before I was released. I never saw a body, not in person."

"Me either," Mulder added. "I don't know what my morph did afterward, but I was released by the Colonists immediately after you... er, your morph... got shot. They didn't much care whether their guy had done it or someone else, now that the 'job' was done. They just shrugged off the fact that Skinner had come along and taken care of the actual details. If anything they probably thought the Consortium was finally holding up their end of the bargain, using their leverage to force Skinner to kill you since they'd promised to take care of it."

"The Rebels expected you to do it," Alex said dully, all the anger and fire and crazed energy draining out of him as he looked up at Mulder. "They figured you'd jump at the chance. The morph who was me... he was supposed to push you, goad you into it. If he couldn't get you to do it, he was supposed to put the gun to his... my... head. In front of you, as proof."

Alex paused, and his eyes glazed, taking on an inward focus, his voice dropping even further, almost a whisper. "Anything so that I clearly died on tape, and no one realized it wasn't actually me." He swallowed, and when he started talking once more it was as if he was talking to himself. "The Rebels, they knew... something. They'd found out that something big was coming down, that another termination order for me had hit the streets." A bitter smile twisted his lips. "Turns out they'd had their eyes on me since Blandings. Hell, before, I think." His shoulders lifted in an aborted shrug. "So they intervened at an 'opportune moment' to keep me alive and bring me into their plans. All they needed was me to be believed dead by all the other players. Then I'd be able to operate more effectively, without people gunning for me constantly. Why hunt down a man you know you killed? Why worry about a man you know you killed. Waste of resources." The smile with no humor in it pulled at his lips again.

"The Consortium fools would write me off as dead, and they'd relax. They always did have too much ego and self-delusion. They'd believe their eyes and it would take that much longer for them to catch on that someone from deep inside their own organization was working closely with the Rebels. I'd be the top suspect, if I was alive. But I was dead. Dead, not just 'disappeared', so it didn't even occur to any of them to cover their tracks or wipe their fingerprints off anything I'd known about." His fingers twitched, but his hands hung limply in the scarf ties. "Made for a lot of easy early busts."

Slowly, he seemed to come back to the room from some place in his memories. He blinked and his eyes focused on Walter. The dejected look in them made Walter's chest ache. "I think... I think the Rebel realized Mulder wasn't going to bite, wasn't going to kill me. It wasn't doing that convincing of a job of being me, I didn't think. Wasn't much good at getting the reaction it was after. It made me sound like an incoherent idiot, wasn't saying any of the things that might actually have gotten Mulder in a killing mood. And then when you..." he paused, face bleak but shading into confused, and Walter felt a flutter of hope, that Alex was getting it, that it truly hadn't been Walter holding the gun. "When y-you showed up, and fired, he switched to you. Goaded you on. To finish the job." He stopped. "Anything so that I died on tape," he repeated.

"Alex," Walter heard his own voice drop to a husky whisper. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry they made you believe that."

"I can't believe I didn't put this together sooner," Mulder slapped the couch cushion. "Dammit! It's just so... surreal. But I should be used to surreal. And you... you were talking as crazy as we were acting. I should have known."

Alex snorted, eyes going back to that midway point between Walter and Mulder. The safe distance. "Yeah, I don't know what the hell it was rattling on about. Like I said, I only watched it that once, the first time, when it..." he drew in a stuttering breath, "when it ha-happened. I didn't want to... see it again. But I... I remember that. It was saying things... I was so pissed, because it sounded so stupid and you guys thought it was me. Sitting there about ready to die, and all I could think was that it was making me look like a total ass."

Walter could see the fine trembling that had started up in Alex's hands, and was now reaching his arms, his thighs. He rose from the couch before he even realized what he was doing, going to the chair and sinking down in front of it, hands going to the scarf and untying it gently. "Alex, it wasn't me. It wasn't us. I didn't shoot you. I'm so sorry. So sorry that you've lived for two and a half years believing I did, believing I would. I wish... I wish I'd known you were alive, I wouldn't have stopped looking until I found you." He took Alex's hands in his, easing them down into his lap, rubbing his thumbs across the backs while his fingers massaged the palms. Alex's breath continued to drag in and out, ragged and uneven. "Breathe, Alex."

"I just-" No words would come as Alex sat, staring at his own hands caught in Walter's. "Watching that-" His voice cracked, and he looked horrified at his own lapse. "Oh, fuck..." He tried to pull his hands away, turning his face to the side.

Walter gripped tighter and pulled back. He moved closer, sliding his hands up Alex's arms. "Listen to me, relax. Can you hear me? Listen to my voice, Alex. Concentrate. Let it out. You don't have to hold onto it anymore. Don't relive it. I'm sorry for asking you to think about it. I'm right here in front of you and we're here in Vermont, not there, and I'm telling you that I didn't do that, that I wouldn't do that, that it nearly killed me to know that you thought I had." He gripped Alex's biceps gently, urging him slowly forward in the chair. "Let it go, Alex, breathe with me, it's okay..."

The resistance held, tension drawing and stretching, Alex's body swaying. Then between one moment and the next, still not looking at him, Alex's body folded forward and slid from the chair to his knees, rocking forward against Walter's chest. Something tight and aching inside Walter's ribs released, something he hadn't known was winding tighter and tighter all night, or for the last two and a half years, he couldn't tell. Alex's entire body shuddered, as if he was freezing. His face stayed turned away, resting against Walter's shoulder as Walter gathered him in carefully, so carefully, half expecting him to explode all over again. He didn't know what to do about the shaking, or about the hitching breaths, or any of it, except just sit there and let Alex lean stiffly against him, not returning Walter's embrace, just shivering in his arms. He looked up over Alex's head and saw Mulder standing beside the chair, watching them with such pain on his expressive face. Walter tried to communicate with his eyes, with his face, how out of his depth he felt, and Mulder must have gotten it because he lowered himself into a crouch and reached out, slowly stroking Alex's hair over and over again.

"Just keep talking," he murmured, letting his other hand rest on Alex's shoulder. "Just keep talking."

pov change

Mulder didn't even listen to the words Skinner murmured, just nodded encouragement at the gentle, soothing tone and waited for Alex's body language to shift. His shoulder under Mulder's grip telegraphed stiff tension and the violent trembling spoke louder than words of his shattering control. Sliding his fingers up into the back of Alex's spiky hair, he pressed them firmly against the curve of skull and started rubbing in small circular motions.

As he tuned in to Alex with his hands, he stretched his mind that little bit further. That careful expansion that working with Will and Jeremiah, and even Langly, had taught him was still within his grasp. Now that he could turn it down to almost nonexistent, he didn't use his own telepathy very much, but he did at least acknowledge it, unlike his years claiming it was completely gone. And he recognized now that it had always been a part of his intuitive leaps, the strange way his brain put information together and produced not just an answer, but 9.9 times out of 10, the right answer.

Jeremiah could be very convincing when he wanted to be.

As a rule, Mulder just didn't like to use it unless there was a damn good reason. It felt invasive. Unprincipled. The Rebels didn't understand the human reticence around sharing thoughts, and made their confusion plain. Old habits, and preconceptions, died hard. Thoughts were private to humans, and the last bastion of 'no one can reach me here.' He didn't like stepping over that line.

Kneeling here now, feeling the painful tension radiating off Alex, struck him as damn good reason enough to work his talent.

The first thing he felt was the heaviness of Skinner's concern, his anxiety and sense of helplessness. Under that, the sheer giddiness at finding Alex alive, coupled hand in hand with his need for Alex to believe him. If Mulder had nurtured any doubts about Walter's sincerity in his story, this would have killed them. As it happened, Mulder didn't even need the convincing, and the earnest strength of Walter's feelings made his eyes sting.

Didn't mean he wasn't going to square off against the man and fight him to the last-man-standing for Alex's attentions, but... damn. He'd had no idea of the depths of Skinner's feelings, his guilt and helplessness, that horrible sense of truncation when he'd believed Alex dead.

Mulder drew in a slow deep breath and closed his eyes, pushing aside Walter's feelings with a steady mental hand. In some distant part of his brain, the part that always stayed cognizant and cataloguing, he recognized why Walter overshadowed Alex so heavily. Walter was so emotionally worked up, he was uncharacteristically broadcasting incredibly strongly and overshadowing everything within range. He was usually a much more contained mental presence that Mulder could shut out with ease, if he needed to open up around Will, and Skinner happened to be nearby. But there was also another reason and it was more concerning. Walter's emotions overwhelmed because Alex's were so difficult to even find. As Mulder moved through the thickness of Walter's mental emanations like swimming through bitter honey, he finally came to the tightly curled, knotted ball of deep, aching, blazing red pain that was Alex. It was as closed down and walled off as ever, and it made Mulder ache in turn... it hurt to draw in breath, and a painful hook caught him in his forehead, just between his eyebrows, then pulsed with spreading pain.

If Will was like a little ball of sunshine to his mind's eye, and Walter was usually a solid silver box - though currently he was more of a heavy blanket in rippling colors of brown and blue - Alex was... like nothing he'd ever seen. Or would that be thought? Mulder shoved away the little cognizant corner, as he thought of it, and just let the impressions roll over him.

A convoluted sailor's knot, that had gone wrong. Terribly wrong. Twisted and splintered strands, some thick and pulsing, some as thin as a wisp of spider's web, all wrapped together in what first appeared to be a haphazard jumble, like nothing so much as a ball of frayed twine that had been used over and over, and then wadded back up around itself quickly and without care.

But the more he just breathed and watched, the more a strange, writhing pattern seemed to emerge. There was a method to the madness... which, the cognizant corner observed objectively, was probably why Alex Krycek was not, in fact, mad. Mulder kept coming back to the sailor's knot... the complicated twists and turns of weather-beaten rope that he watched so many old hands tie off with ease back during summers on the ocean. And yet, the wrongness was still there... this was no knot that could ever be duplicated, taught to an apprentice and learned as a skill.

The question was... could it be untangled. Was there anything at the center of the knot, and would it survive the unwrapping.

Survive... the word sank into Mulder's consciousness and... fit. Of course. Perfect sense. There was a pattern... a pattern because Alex didn't do anything without a plan. And there, slowly, the red, spiky knot began to make sense. Alex had tied the knot, had woven the strands... and they seemed familiar because there was Alex in every one of them. The pattern was clear once he realized what he was looking for... where the strands were the most thinned out, there was the most crisscrossing, a pattern of patching holes that were wearing through. Where the strands were the thickest... something... something roiled just underneath, that gave that writhing impression to the whole. A heavier darkness. Whereas the strands were deep red, whatever was underneath, tied up and over, was almost burgundy... the dark edge of purpling and black like bruised skin.

Holes... Mulder realized. These were the holes. Breaches in the strands where they'd thinned too much and the patching hadn't worked or hadn't held and they'd broken through, leaving deep gouges in the essence of the mind, the person. And the weaving process was haphazard here and there, over them... as if done in the quickest manner possible, with the only tools at hand. Thick strands of something else... repression? suppression?... wrapped around to hold the whole together until more could be added.

The ache in his own chest increased the more he understood, the closer he pressed. Every single strand, thick or thin, pulsing or still, was splintered and frayed like a rope rubbed too long against other ropes, against things that abraded it and wore it down. And even as Mulder sank further into his mental vision, he realized the entire knot was shuddering in time with the shaking that wracked the shoulder beneath his hand. The largest of the strands were contracting, squeezing against the whole in a way that looked painful. The thinnest strands were stretching with each shudder, easing with each contraction. And even as he watched, more and more of the strands splintered.

The pain in his head was fierce and increasing, and he desperately wanted to back away, pull out completely, so he could breathe. Just taking in the mental impression of Alex's psyche had him almost debilitated, the very idea of opening more and allowing the feelings to wash over him was frightening.

He tuned out everything but the sensations from his hands, and sank deeper, reaching for the meditative state that let him withstand the early days with Will, when the baby was still in real pain from just being in the same room with him. He reached past the ache in his chest and willed his lungs to draw in and hold the air, willed his muscles to stay relaxed.

And slowly, gently, eased his mental hands forward and touched. A sense of heat scorching his nonexistent fingers rode through him, and only his learned ability to separate these experiences kept him from pulling back his physical hands, and shaking them from the sting. He knew he could force his way in, but he didn't know exactly what that might do, or the repercussions for Alex.

He pressed experimentally at the twisted knot of emotion and thought. Sent the most nonthreatening, careful, tender thread of himself seeking toward it, asking for a way in, not forcing. At first, nothing came... nothing but the physical sensations of pain that were the expected backlash of going into a wide open emotional state in the presence of a wounded psyche like Alex's. Mulder waited and worked on his relaxation, keeping himself as open as possible, just questing at the edges of the tightly maintained, shut-down emotions trying so hard to contain themselves, so hard to force themselves back into... into little mental straightjackets, came the image, unbidden, to Mulder's internal vision.

In that moment, without conscious decision, without even meaning to, he pushed forward again, his own emotions and thoughts responding reflexively to the painful contortions he watched. Safe... his mind whispered like a mantra, wrapping itself around the pulsating knot with a speed that surprised even him. He opened his mental arms and just surrounded the bewildered, angry, hurting mind. He sent calming thoughts, gentle thoughts, warm and welcoming like open blankets toasted beside a fire on an icy cold rainy day. Inviting, coaxing, reassuring... tugging at the straps of the straightjackets and just holding out the promise of relaxation and safety... no danger, just care. Breathe, Alex. You need to breathe. Just breathe and let the walls down. Please.

All at once, the emotions came. He didn't know what did it, whether it was the gentle presence asking to be let in, or the sudden surround-sound harmony of safety and welcome, or the hopefully-not-traumatic impact of his own unplanned sending into Alex's mind. Whatever did it, the emotions and thoughts boiled over and out and every single strand seemed to vibrate, expand. All he could do was ride the wave of Alex's internal maelstrom, as it swamped him and washed up against the cognizant corner, spattering and spraying even the objective little observer walled up there.

painpainpain collided and bounced and jostled and Mulder had a few moments of tumbling, dizzy confusion, feeling every bit of it, before he could start sorting it out. Sorting it into Alex's pain versus his own... sorting recent pain, old pain, incredibly old pain, new pain, half-forgotten pain that got resurrected when old buttons were brushed by new events. The clearest message driving through the center of everything was that this - this pain - this is what Alex knew. He knew it inside and out, it was familiar and known and quantifiable and understood, on some level. Whenever he tried to branch out and move beyond it, it just came back as his one life's constant. It had stopped being worth it a long, long time ago to even try to reach beyond it. Even try to move away from it.

And besides, he deserved it. The current of sour, acrid guilt that rode every wave of pain stung Mulder everywhere it touched, like the scouring of salt water in an open wound. Alex knew with an unshakeable certainty, beyond a shadow of a doubt and better than anyone else, that he absolutely deserved to be in pain. His list of crimes wasn't at the top of his conscious thoughts at the moment, but it never truly sank below the surface. All of the various sins hung in the subconscious, ready to rise and break into the conscious at a moment's notice.

Mulder had a sudden strong sense of what some of the heavy darkness under the pulsing, patching strands was... both what had been done to Alex and, in a way even more harmful, what the man had done himself. He knew he could push just a fraction, and be in among the list - a careful, meticulous accounting of every wrong staining this soul. Because no one knew the list better than the man himself.

He backed away from even the hint of going there. The last thing Alex needed now was Mulder rummaging through his list of self-indictments. Instead he sifted the rolling waves of pain and felt for more definition of the most prominent, the uppermost emotions. Unsurprising, a constant, looped film of the garage that night played out in Alex's thoughts. The visual images came thick and fast, intercut with flashes of a years-younger Mulder, a younger Skinner, in a variety of completely unremarkable circumstances. Well, we're certainly on his mind, the cognizant corner observed, and even it sounded surprised at the unrelenting flood, the sheer volume of stashed freeze-frame images of Mulder and Skinner both.

The pain of the memories mixed with an overlay of complete incomprehension as to why Mulder and Skinner were being so nice to him now, why they'd reappeared at all. What they were doing in his new life. In his Vermont. Confused half-theories formed and dissipated and reformed in Alex's thoughts like wisps of fog. They were here to hurt him, here to track him down and make him pay for all the old crimes, here to punish him and drag him back to that world and put him in prison or kill him again. Suspicion and fear mingled throughout with the years-old ache of watching himself be murdered by Walter Skinner's hand, with Mulder standing there apparently uncaring, unmoved, approving.

The pain the constant memory evoked was some of the most ruthlessly repressed, and the intense anger they'd heard from him all night was directed at their presence for tearing open the careful stitching all over again. The repeated, reinforced thoughts of disbelief arose out of that need to be prepared for the worst, that need to know that the pain was real, because believing they hadn't wanted him dead was just too damn much of a risk. How could he possibly believe anything so absurd, and yet there seemed to be no other answer and why were they doing this to him? Just to lure him in and hurt him all over again, even worse? He knew what they thought of him, he didn't need it spelled out. How could he believe them, when all he wanted to do was believe them, but that was so STUPID and self-recrimination followed every bare flicker of hope and squashed it flat and dammit the whole thing was moot anyway because of course there was some ulterior motive because they couldn't honestly be sitting here talking about feelings and being sorry and being glad he was alive because...

Because he deserved the pain. Why wouldn't they have killed him, and be glad to see it done with? Why wouldn't they respond as if it was nothing more than another day on the job? It was no more than he deserved.

Finding his feet against the constant undertow of thoughts and emotions piling on top of one another and sucking each other under and coming in again to slam against the shore of Mulder's aching brain, Mulder formed his mental hands again and started slicing through the waves. He'd always been a strong swimmer, the cognizant corner observed with a glimmer of amusement. Since the metaphor worked, Mulder went with it... so much of working effectively with his mind was getting images and strong pictures that 'fit', he'd learned. He let Alex's emotions slide to either side of him, or up over him, and just let them go, tried not to be overwhelmed or attached to any of them. Distinguishing with practiced ease between what was Alex and what was himself, noting the emotions that belonged to Alex, but not getting sucked in by them.

The first couple times with Will, he'd gotten so lost in Will's pain, gotten so upset at what he was doing to the boy, that he'd been devastated and almost hadn't been able to go on. In the long run though, his son had proved an excellent teacher. He knew how to get grounded against this kind of overwhelming pain, and he knew how to reassure and comfort in the face of it. The problem was, Will could accept it, was looking for it. Could Alex? Alex sure as hell wasn't looking for reassurance and he didn't go to anyone for comfort. Mulder wondered if he'd even recognize comfort when it was offered.

Reaching into the well of emotions raised in him by the realization that Alex was truly alive, and here, he formed his mental images carefully and started sending them full force back into the tidal surges of Alex's mind. Every hint of the wonder and excitement, forming them like arrows of fire to cut right to the center and lodge, and catch, and spread their heat and passion. His total conviction, not only in his own truth, but in Walter's as well - his newfound assurance that it was not Walter Skinner in the parking garage that night pulling the trigger. His honest regret and loss, the aching sense of unfinished business and things left unsaid. His flooding hope at the thought that all those chances were not lost, not gone forever. And with every arrow of thought, wrapped in clear, brilliant emotion, he focused on the absolute stability of his and Walter's presence, the safety they offered, the acceptance. The mental pictures of the three of them, on the floor, he and Walter flanking and bracing, surrounding.

The constant buffeting of Alexemotion slowed after long minutes of repetition of the same images, the same arrows of focused thought fired again and again. Alex's flurried thoughts eased, the emotions stopped swirling after each other like mini whirlpools. But Mulder didn't ease up on his own messages until he finally felt Alex's shoulder begin to loosen under his physical hand. As the muscles released, he felt Alex sink further, not holding himself up at all. Felt the hard shudders die down to a fine tremble. Keeping up a gentle stream of 'we're telling you the truth', he slowly opened his eyes, readjusting to outer sight. Alex slumped against Walter, breathing steadying.

Rubbing the relaxing muscles, Mulder let his hand move from shoulder to neck, his other hand stroking through Alex's hair to come to rest on the other side. He began to work the shoulders gently, increasing the pressure only when he was sure Alex wouldn't stiffen up again and pull away.

Catching Walter's concerned and questioning look, he nodded and gave a half smile. He was pretty sure he'd convinced Alex that he could feel safer around them, and that they were telling the truth. He didn't expect Alex to turn into a purring and snuggly kitten rather than a spitting and hissing beaten-up alley tom anytime soon, but he hoped he'd at least broken through the major wall of reflexive, protective disbelief and suspicion.

He hoped now they could really talk. Maybe without even having to tie Alex down.

pov change

Alex felt the tension leave his body in a rush of exhaustion. He was conscious of resting fully against Skinner's body, but at the moment he was too drained to care. He knew... absolutely knew now, to the depths of his soul... that they were telling the truth. They hadn't even been in the parking garage that night. They were honestly thrilled that he was alive. Both of them, if Mulder's read of Skinner was accurate, and off hand Alex was willing to bet that Mulder had a handle on this one. He wasn't quite ready to analyze, or buy into, this 'feeling' thing they were talking about, but he couldn't keep denying that in their basic story... they were telling the truth.

And that freaked him the hell out.

It didn't fit with any of his worldviews, any of his solid realities, any of the hard facts of his life that he'd come to depend on as constants. This... whatever it was... threw everything into chaos.

Chaos was just fine when he was causing it in the world at large. It was not okay when it was being caused in his head, by his two most personal enemies who suddenly wanted to be his best friends. And speaking of causing chaos in his head...

He gathered all his strength and forced his mouth to work, without shifting position at all. "Mulder, get the fuck out of my head."

A soft laugh came from behind him. The gentle massaging motion of the hands on his shoulders didn't miss a beat. He knew he shouldn't be, but he was glad, because the thumbs were doing wonderful things to the base of his neck.

"Wondered how sensitive you were."

Alex sighed. "Entirely too. Too much practice. I lived with the Rebels for months. Longer with Jeremiah. I got used to that weird sense that what I suddenly know isn't exactly what I knew two minutes ago." His voice sounded fuzzy and distorted, half murmured into Walter's shoulder. He didn't really want to sit up, pull away, even though he knew he should. Sitting here like this, slumped in Walter's arms, practically in his lap... it was way too obvious. It gave entirely the wrong impression.

Or, more problematically, entirely the right one.

He kicked himself for the thought. Now was not the time to be thinking things like that. Not with Vulcan Mind-Meld Mulder sitting in back of him. He had no idea how much he was leaking, just that he had to be leaking because now he felt absolutely safe and like he'd been wrapped in warm cotton and every anxiety that rose, fell away again before a reassuring wave of comfort. That meant Mulder was picking up plenty, if every emotion Alex felt was being met with a countering soothing sensation. Jeremiah used that trick just often enough that Alex had finally caught on.

Of course then, as now, it was incredibly effective. He tried to draw in on himself, tried to reel himself back under control, get everything back safely behind doors and get the doors shut and locked. But it just felt like too much effort and... he felt safe.

Which was about as stupid as anything he'd ever thought, because kneeling on the floor between Skinner's thighs with Mulder at his back was anything but safe.

Between Skinner's... ?

Yikes. He really needed to move. He hadn't realized he was that close and his hips were practically... fuck don't think about it don'tthinkaboutit. Okay, so moving was necessary. Getting control, keeping his mind all in one piece without any stray wandering-sheep thoughts, and standing up. He could do that. He'd spent a life time doing exactly that.

He was just so... tired. Not to mention feeling like a steamroller had gone over him, backed up, and run into him again. While he was standing on crushed gravel. Naked. And all that on top of feeling like crap from the whole 'possibly relapsing on the mutant flu from hell' thing. And Skinner was just so solid and yet comfortable to collapse against. And those hands on his neck... mmm.

"My knees hurt," he forced himself to say before the little woolies in his brain could frolic any further from the herd.

Mulder's hands slid down over his back and Walter's moved down his arms. Between them they guided him back away from Walter's body. He kept his head turned resolutely away, not feeling like meeting either of their eyes at the moment. Mulder helped him back to his feet while Walter levered himself off the floor.

Alex winced as his knees cracked, and didn't protest when Mulder urged him back a step and into the chair. He settled his head against the cushioned back and closed his eyes. So, here they were. Really here, not figments of his imagination. And really glad to see him, not just drawing him in with some weird insane ploy to soften him up then tromp all over him. They hadn't killed him, hadn't wanted him dead, had actually mourned him. And on top of that, they knew it was him... they knew he was the source - Xealot. If their words could be believed, and apparently they could, they both had somehow arrived at the bizarre conclusion that they had some sort of unresolved feelings for him. The very thought made him snicker. They'd disabuse themselves of that notion soon enough. He opened his eyes and stared up at them, both looking down on him anxiously.

And there was a blizzard outside that was just getting worse, and Route 9 was probably already closed and he just knew he was going to end up putting them up for the night. His snicker grew into a laugh and he rubbed a hand over his face.

So much for not playing host. In that case...

"So. You guys want... I don't know, a drink or something?"

pov change

Walter blinked as Alex started laughing, then offered them a drink. He looked to Mulder again, but Mulder appeared as nonplussed as he felt.

"'Cause I know I could sure use one." Alex seemed to be trying to stifle the giggles, but not doing a very good job.

Truthfully, Walter felt like he could use a drink. This whole night had been surreal. He just wasn't sure taking Alex up on the offer was a good idea. In his current condition, it didn't look like adding alcohol to the mix would be a particularly wise move.

Mulder had progressed to merely bemused, and nodded. "I could use a beer. Why don't I go get it. Kitchen?"

"Oh shit." Alex slapped his forehead, stricken. "I don't have anything in the house."

Now Mulder laughed. "Well, thanks for the offer, anyway."

Alex winced. "Sorry. I just don't... drink much. And I had to go to a faculty holiday thing and I didn't realize until the day of that I should bring something and so I brought the last bottle of wine I had in the house. I don't keep much on hand anyway. I don't like beer, and I-" He stopped short, as if he'd realized he was babbling. "But, ah, I could make coffee?"

Walter shook his head and broke in. "No, the last thing you need is caffeine at this time of night. You've been sick, you're still sick, you need sleep." He knew he sounded peremptory, could tell by the way Alex's eyes sparked and his shoulders lifted an inch, like a cat arching, but he didn't care. He was concerned about Alex and couldn't imagine coffee this late would be advisable from a health standpoint. Maybe something to relax him, but not something that would get him wired up.

"Hot chocolate?" Mulder hazarded with a sudden grin.

It took Walter a moment to realize Alex was blushing. "Um, yeah, there's plenty of that," he muttered. "And milk in the fridge."

"Great," Mulder laughed. "I'll take care of it, you just sit."

Watching Alex's eyes follow Mulder into the kitchen, Walter wanted to put his fist through the nearest wall. Dammit. Great. So he comes off looking like a dictator, and Mulder ends up all caring and smiles. His jaw tightened. From Alex's reaction to the chocolate suggestion, he must have a sweet tooth, and be a little self-conscious about it. Damn Mulder, anyway. He probably knew. Either from way back, when they'd been partnered, or from his trip through Alex's mind.

He didn't often envy Mulder his 'gifts'. In fact, up until now, he'd never envied Mulder the telepathy and weirdness. If anything, he'd always felt sorry for him. But it hadn't escaped his notice that Alex only relaxed against him after Mulder had put his hands on him, after Mulder had gone all trance-like.

Just perfect. Younger, better looking, brains, humor... hair... and a fucking mind-reader to boot.

How the hell did he battle that?

And Mulder even had an adorable son to complete the package. Walter immediately felt guilty, thinking uncharitable thoughts about Will, but dammit, it was true. Whereas any other toddler might conceivably be a hampering factor for dear old dad's sex life, Will was not just any toddler. He was the kid that people who hated kids just melted around. If anything, he was an enhancement to Mulder's appeal... Walter had seen it happen repeatedly with women. When Mulder was out with Will, women zeroed in on him even more often. And that was saying something.

Not that Mulder noticed, of course. Damn oblivious bastard. Although Walter doubted he could count on Mulder being oblivious when it came to the question of Alex's interest.

He realized suddenly that he was staring at Alex and he likely had a less than pleasant expression on his face. Alex was giving him that neutral look, the one that screamed disconcerted suspicion. He forced himself to relax his facial muscles and smile. He wouldn't give Mulder a run for his money by relying on the intimidation factor.

"So. Have you been to the doctor?"

Alex stayed silent for just long enough, Walter wondered if he was going to answer. And wondered what he would do if Alex didn't answer. Then Alex's eyes flickered away from Walter's and his right shoulder lifted and dropped. "No."

"No? You seem like you've been pretty sick. Out for a week? That definitely qualifies as time to see the doctor."

Alex shifted in the chair. "I don't like doctors."

"Well, I don't know that anyone likes doctors, but you can't just not go. Especially with something that's knocking you this flat."

This time both shoulders lifted in an irritable shrug. "Why bother? You go in, wait way too long with other sick people coughing all over you, finally get in the office, they look you over for all of two minutes, listen to your symptoms, say 'yes, you have the flu', and send you home. There's nothing they can do for it."

"There might be. You don't know unless you go see, talk to them. Let someone know-"

Alex snorted. "Force fluids and stay in bed. Lots of rest. Painkillers for the aches. Decongestant for the head. Pepto Bismol for the nausea."

Walter arched his eyebrows and felt his face fall into the natural contours of 'stern' again, no matter how much he tried to forestall it. "And if you know that, why aren't you in bed?"

Alex gave him a 'duh' look. "Because there is a tiny person in my bed, who is too cute for his own good, makes weasels fly, and is currently making my dog fall in love with him. Oh, and not to mention? There are two crazy people in my house who seem intent on tying me to my own furniture and telling me how they come in peace and mean me no harm."

Walter winced, but plowed forward anyway. "I... ah... meant why were you up and around at work, at the school, at all today. If you know what the doctors would say. You should have been taking that very good advice."

Alex rolled his eyes. "Yes, Daddy," he sneered.

Walter was the one to snort this time, response tripping off his tongue before he could censor himself. "Trust me, Alex, whatever I feel for you, it's definitely not fatherly. Although I wouldn't mind doing whatever it takes to keep you in line, if need be. You sure as hell needed it often enough in the past. Strikes me you could use someone looking after you."

Watching Alex's eyes widen and the slight flush on his cheeks deepen, Walter rewound his own words and swallowed hard. Did I really just say that out loud? Unsurprising really. In the last years Walter had a lot of time to analyze, and he'd long since put a name to the urge, hovering so close to the surface in all his dealings with Alex Krycek. So much about Alex inspired a strong 'take the reins and straighten things out' drive in Walter, and always had; the compulsion to step in and reel the man in, save him from the rest of the world, but more so from Alex himself.

From the earliest days, when he'd realized exactly who must be pulling Alex's strings, he'd wanted desperately to intervene, give the boy a new master to answer to, better rules to follow. To the angry days of black rocks and balconies, when he'd needed to lock the man outside of his house to keep himself under control. Keep himself from giving in to the impulse to employ the 'firm hand' methodology a little too freely, in his rage and disappointment in Alex, and in himself. If there was ever anyone crying out for a firm hand, it was Alex, with his wild risk-taking and stupid schemes, playing all ends against the middle. Getting himself maimed, imprisoned, alien-possessed.

Right up through the horrible days of little black boxes and hospitals, when he'd wanted nothing more than to slam the smirking man up against a wall and knock some sense into him, grind that little machine under foot, show Alex Krycek exactly who was boss and just why he needed to fall into line and smarten up. To the last days, when he watched that fucking screen and wanted desperately to wrap Alex up in his arms and keep him safe from the forces - including Alex's own compliance - that had brought things to that stage, of Alex being hunted by all factions, marked for permanent removal as the only acceptable solution.

Walter lifted his chin and stared back at Alex, not giving in to the embarrassed tug in his gut, or the easy out of averting his eyes and letting the statement slide away, ignored. He arched one brow and held the gaze, folding his arms over his chest.

Was it his imagination going into overtime, or did Alex almost imperceptibly soften in the chair, a ripple of submission chasing through him? Head dipping forward, eyes sliding away and then back to watch Walter sidelong, through his lashes. His body language shifting just a touch, the last of the stiffness melting, knees falling open just a touch wider with the relaxing of muscles.

A pulse of heat fired low in his groin, spreading through him and leaving a warm glow. Maybe hair, an adorable son, and telepathy didn't represent overwhelming odds. Maybe just a thread of the intimidation factor wasn't a detriment after all.

"You make a good point though. We shouldn't be keeping you out of bed." He let his voice fall into his lowest register, hoping to imply all the myriad ideas conjured up by the thought of keeping Alex in bed.

From the deer-in-the-headlights look on Alex's face, he guessed he'd succeeded.

"I... um, got sick of it. Staying in bed. I've been lying around, doing nothing, getting totally bored for a week. I don't need any more time in bed."

"Are you sure of that?" Walter kept his voice at the suggestive rumble, not saying anything out of line but with an undercurrent of innuendo heavy enough to choke a horse. He was rewarded with a renewed flush of red in Alex's cheeks. Walter decided he liked the look of Alex Krycek blushing. "Anyway, you look damn exhausted right now. We should get Will out of your bed and get ourselves out of your hair. If you promise we can come back and talk again tomorrow, we'll hit the road." He looked toward the dark window. "Should get headed to our hotel before this gets any worse." He pasted on a look of sincere concern. The car they'd rented would likely get them through anything, but he was willing to use whatever tools were at his disposal, and as far as he was concerned the storm was one big fat frozen screwdriver.

Alex sneezed into his shirt sleeve, glanced at the window, and asked, "What hotel did they put you at?"

"Something down in Brattleboro. The Latch Kiss? Something... Latch..."

"The Latchis? Well, hell. That's hardly going to work. If they haven't already closed Route 9, they'll be doing it soon. Not that it'd be safe to head back down the mountain tonight even if they haven't closed it. And you sure as hell can't go the Halifax to Guilford way tonight. Both those towns will be waiting for the snow to stop before they do any of their plowing. Brattleboro plows nonstop during a storm, but that's not going to do you much good for the half hour drive you have before you hit Brattleboro." Alex shook his head, his forehead wrinkling. "And going up into Dover will be no good either. Same problem with the driving, and worse, it'd be pointless. You won't find any place with room. Everything gets overbooked with ski season. They've been predicting great slope conditions this weekend." His face tightened as he shook his head again. "You'll have to stay here."

"Oh no," Walter immediately demurred, while inside he grinned. "Don't worry about it, this thing we've rented? Four wheel drive, it's like a tank! We'll be fine. I don't want us to be putting you out, especially with you being sick and all." He glanced around the room. "Besides, it doesn't look like you've got room."

Alex sighed and waved a hand at the couch. "That pulls out. And forget it, you're not driving. Tanks don't do you any good on closed roads." Alex's eyes skimmed the room, and Walter could see the wheels turning, trying to figure out where to put people. "If Will's settled down in there already, maybe we should just leave him and-"

Walter shrugged and pitched his voice just to the left of casual. "Not that I think you should be in a position to have to give up your bed, but if you want to leave Will there and put Mulder in with him, I'm... perfectly happy to bunk out here with you."

Alex's eyes widened again at the purr Walter put into 'perfectly', and actually squirmed in his chair. Walter bit back a chortle of glee. Normally he wouldn't be anywhere near this forward, but dammit, enough time had been wasted and he had to contend with Mulder. Mulder, who didn't know the meaning of the word 'subtle'.

With all the damnable timing the man possessed, the kitchen door swung open and Mulder walked in hurriedly with a tray of mugs. "What was that?" he asked, voice sharp but trying for nonchalant.

"Alex was just kindly offering to put us up for the night, given the conditions. His couch pulls out. We were just talking about the arrangements, and how if Will is already asleep on Alex's bed, he'd probably be most comfortable with you in there with him. You know, in case he wakes up or-"

"Oh no," Mulder broke in, setting the tray down and bringing a mug to Alex. "I wouldn't think of putting you out of your bed, especially with you sick. Will will be fine no matter where we settle him. We'll give you back your bed, and there's the couch and these chairs-"

Alex cupped the mug in both hands and inhaled the steam rising. Walter watched his eyelids droop in enjoyment, then close all the way as he took a sip. He was so caught up in observing Alex in this sensual pleasure, it took him a moment to catch the words when Alex interrupted Mulder.

"I learned a long time ago how to sleep anywhere. It's no big deal. I don't need the bed and he's already settled."

Walter managed a smooth smile in response to the irritated look Mulder shot him. Take that, pretty boy.

"Well, if you're honestly willing to give Will your bed..." Mulder paused, eyes gleaming. Walter recognized the signs of a Mulder unwilling to go down without a fight. "It may make more sense for Walter to share with him. He's a familiar presence, and I'll be up half the night anyway. I'd just disturb him with my tossing and turning, and my dreams when I do sleep. He picks up on my dreams. Walter can take the bed with him, you can have the pullout couch, Alex, and I'll take a chair."

Walter didn't know whether to laugh or snort at Mulder's convoluted reasoning. He had no doubt Will could and did pick up on Mulder's dreams, but he knew damn well the man had shared plenty of rooms and beds with Will while traveling, or when Will stayed with him in DC. He could see it now... Mulder would get him sealed away in the bedroom with Will, then would undoubtedly have some 'nightmare' that would wake both he and Alex, and require some sort of comforting. He was already setting the stage for it with his comments about dreaming.

"I really think it makes more sense for you to share with Will-"

"It's already a strange place for him and he doesn't need me keeping him awake-"

"-since you are his father and he's surely more used to you than me-"

"-and he sure doesn't need me nightmaring right next to him, you've seen how he picks up-"

"Hey, here's a novel idea," Alex's conversational tone cut through the rising voices. "How about we start arguing loud enough to wake him up, and make it all a moot point? Or, how about I go sleep in my own bed with Will, and you two can continue your... discussion, without me."

Walter exchanged an abashed look with Mulder. Aggressive instincts aside, he realized he wasn't being particularly helpful. Alex was certainly dealing with enough without the two of them fighting over who got to snuggle up next to him, the first night after spending two plus years thinking they'd killed him. Way to crank up the pressure, Walt. And why is he not tossing us out into the snow? He sighed. "Sorry, Alex. I just...," he stopped and rethought. "Where would you be most comfortable?" he asked, just as Mulder said, "Where do you want to sleep?" With an effort, Walter ignored the impulse to snap 'I thought of it first'.

Alex groaned. "Somewhere else," he muttered. Then, taking another long swallow of his chocolate, he leaned forward, elbows on knees. "I honestly don't think me sleeping on the same bed with Will is an option. My nightmares aren't the kind you want next to a telepathic kid, and whenever I'm sick, they're worse. Mulder, I'm really fine with you taking the bed. Or Skinner. Don't care. Whichever one of you would be better for him. The other of you can have the couch, and I'll take the recliner. It'll help me stay more upright so I can breathe better anyway."

Mulder looked as ready to protest as Walter felt, but they eyed each other and held their tongues. Finally Mulder couldn't keep quiet any longer and asked weakly, "Are you sure you want to sleep in a chair?"

Alex held up a forestalling hand and glared at both of them. "Positive. Drop it. I don't care where either of you sleep, but I'm in that red recliner and that's that. And I can honestly say, I think I've had enough for one night. We can... I don't know what. Continue this conversation in the morning. Or something. I'm going to bed. Er... going to chair. Whatever. I'm going to go change." He got up with another groan but waved off Mulder's attempt to grab his arm with an impatient "I'm fine. I'm done falling over for the night."

As he left the room Mulder glared over at Walter. "Way to go," he hissed. "Now he's sleeping in a chair!"

Walter bridled, incensed. "Oh, and that's my fault, Mr. I'll-Have-Bad-Dreams?" he shot back in a furious whisper. "What the hell was that all about? You share a room with Will all the time and I don't notice him waking up screaming!"

"Well, he is sensitive to my dreams-"

"Then think happy thoughts," Walter growled, and strode past Mulder. "I'm going to get my bag." He grabbed his ball cap and coat off the rack and was out the front door before he even had them on.

Outside, the snow was blinding and Walter had to admit, ulterior motives aside, he was damn glad he wasn't driving back down the mountain. The wind sucked his breath away and he paused to get the coat the rest of the way on before slogging to the car and opening the back end. He supposed if he was being nice, he'd drag along Mulder's bag as well. He didn't feel particularly nice, but he yanked it out with his own.

He tried to tell himself it was probably for the best. While he wanted to make himself clear, he didn't want to overstep too quickly. He didn't honestly know if he could climb into a bed beside Alex and not try to... argue his case. He thought about the involuntary reactions he'd noted in his quarry, and not even the icy wind could touch the flare of warmth in his chest.

He smiled into the snow as he trudged back to the house. He'd never acted this quickly on anything in his life. He was always the planner. The staid, solid, methodical one. No impulsiveness.

Fuck that. He'd seen reaction. He had a shot, and a damn good one. To come down to it, this wasn't sudden at all. It was the culmination of years. Years of suppression and misunderstanding, betrayal and redemption, then years of grief and regret.

So he wouldn't make a move tonight. It was too soon, Alex was way too off balance, and he really didn't want to scare him off and damage his overall chances. But dammit, he would make his intentions clear in no uncertain terms. Tomorrow. He'd tell Mulder to cancel the damn speaking tour if they had to, and if he didn't want to, he could go on without Walter. Then he'd leave it to Alex to respond or pull back, to decide what to do with his declarations. He climbed the steps and dropped the bags to reopen the front door.

And if Alex pulled back, well, he'd just have to pursue.

pov change

Mulder stopped rattling the dishes in the sink when he heard the front door open and close again. He hadn't wanted to follow Skinner outside, but he did need his stuff. He might as well go get it now that Skinner was back inside. He left the kitchen, and was surprised to see his own bag sitting next to Skinner's. He hadn't expected that after their silent circling had made it to the verbal level.

Skinner shook off his coat and hat and hung them up, speaking to Mulder without looking at him. "It's hell out there. Figured I might as well grab what we needed." He bent and picked up his own bag and walked to the couch, sat down and unzipped the black case.

Mulder fought with himself for a moment. He really wanted to insist that Skinner take the bedroom with Will. He didn't like the way Skinner had been prowling around Alex like a lion ready to mate all night. If Skinner was in the bedroom with the door shut, and he was out here on the couch... well, he wouldn't mind a little time essentially alone with Alex, to engage him in conversation. Draw him out, in order to draw him in.

He could see it. The room would be dark; he'd only be able to make out the shape of Alex in the chair. There was safety in the dark... comfort. Things could be said that wouldn't quite survive the light of day. Given enough space in the intimacy of darkness, the fragile utterances could find their way out and strengthen. Voices only, no intimidating eye contact or misinterpreted facial expressions to cut the words short, kill them off. Just voices, reaching out and touching, winding around one another in the small room warm from the wood stove. The snug little house wrapped in the cocoon of silent snow piling against the windows.

He'd be propped on the couch, not even bothering to pull it out. He slept on his own couch most of the time; he was used to the dimensions. He'd probably sleep better. But first, before sleep, he'd curl under a blanket while Alex settled in the chair, and when the relaxation and drowsiness stole in, he'd tell Alex how glad he was to see him alive. How there were so many things he wanted to say, wanted to talk about. He'd steer the conversation to the fire that always kindled between them, even when they bit and scratched and fought. He'd ask Alex right out, did he feel it too.

He knew Alex did. Knew with the certainty of having roamed Alex's mind. Even without poking around or looking for it, the evidence of confused emotion littered Alex's tangled mind and had done everything but slap Mulder across the face. There were Mulder-fingerprints everywhere. He might not be proud of every mark he'd left, but he'd certainly carved out a place for himself in Alex's psyche. Alex's preoccupation with him was a lot more than just simple curiosity.

However, he'd also seen and experienced the depth of Alex's suspicion, doubt, self-recriminations and conviction that no one could possibly care about or love him. Getting through all of that required direct communication. So he'd spell it out in no uncertain terms that he could and did care, and ask Alex point blank to be just as blunt. Then they could move forward.

Still in his toasty fantasy of the two of them in the darkened living room, Mulder pictured encouraging Alex to come sit with him on the couch. Even knowing how hopelessly college-student it was, he imagined himself offering to rub the tension and aches out of Alex's shoulders as they talked. Hell, Alex worked at a college now, maybe he'd appreciate the sophomoric quality. Maybe Alex would sigh and relax into Mulder's hands, and they would settle together on the couch, speaking as much through tender, lingering touches as with low, murmured words. Maybe Alex would fall asleep against him. Maybe the next morning Walter would come out of the bedroom to find them sleeping together on the couch, and would give it up as a lost cause.

But not if he couldn't get Walter into that bedroom. Now how to convince him, without being overly obvious of his-

"Mulder, I don't care if you want the couch or the bed or the floor. I'm tired, it's been a long day, I'll sleep wherever." Walter stood up from the couch, carrying his sweats and shaving kit.

Mulder blinked at the sudden announcement. Well, that would work, too. "You're sure?" he started, then caught himself. "I mean, sure. I really do find I worry a lot about waking Will up, when we share a room or a bed. You are right," he admitted reluctantly. "Him picking up on the dreaming isn't anywhere near as bad a problem as it used to be. But the insomnia is still loads of fun."

Walter nodded, his face tired. "Fine. I'm going to go get ready for bed."

"Okay. And... thanks," Mulder added as Walter headed for the bathroom. One big hand lifted and fell in acknowledgement, and the bathroom door closed.

Mulder grabbed his own bag and brought it over to the couch, moving Skinner's to one side. He started rearranging pillows and testing the comfort of the couch, then realized he should check on Will before settling down. He told himself the urge had nothing to do with the fact that Alex hadn't reappeared from the bedroom yet.

He padded down the hall and edged up on the bedroom door, listening. Hearing nothing but the muted sounds of water running in the bathroom across the hall, he gripped the doorknob and opened the door swiftly, trying for casual as he walked right in. The little black puppy lifted its head from the bed, but didn't make any sound.

Alex sat on the bed, staring down at Will. He'd changed into worn grey sweats and a dark green long underwear top. Thick red-and-white striped socks made his feet particularly noticeable. Mulder opened his mouth to comment on them, when he realized Alex hadn't even looked up at the sound of the door. Discarding the joke forming on his tongue, instead he stepped closer and just said softly, "Alex?"

Alex startled, head jerking around. "Oh, Mulder. Didn't hear you come in." He stood hurriedly, eyes casting around the room as if looking for a good excuse for his delay. Mulder forestalled him with a simple smile and quiet question.

"Really something, isn't he?"

Alex froze and looked about to speak. Then slowly his eyes tracked to Will again, almost as if he couldn't help it. He watched the sleeping boy like he was an unexploded bomb. "He's... okay? And everything?"

Mulder nodded, smiling down at his sleeping son. "Yes. More or less. He's not very verbal, but the aliens think it has to do with his telepathy. They act like it's perfectly normal, which is reassuring since they seem to think of him as more one of them than one of us. I've gotten the distinct impression he's developing exactly as they expect, and very normally for one of them."

Alex nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah. Makes sense. I've worked with enough of them. They're not exactly talkers."

"Exactly. I believe it's part of being a telepathic species. And even though Will is human as well, at this age, they think he likely doesn't see much use for words when he can communicate effectively without them. People respond to what he wants without even realizing they know what he wants. They react before he needs to ask. He just needs to think 'hungry' and three people show up in the room with food for him. From what we can tell, there's nothing physiologically wrong with his vocal structures, so it looks like a choice issue. And he's certainly smart enough that no one is suggesting it's an understanding problem. The aliens keep brushing it off. They say he'll talk when he wants to, and that he's absorbing whatever he needs to know. Probably more than he needs to know." Mulder grinned wryly. "I worry about that, actually."

"I bet you do," Alex murmured, forehead wrinkling. "I don't know if it's a good idea to have him here, around me. I meant what I said. My head isn't a place you want him to be."

"I understand. But you can give yourself a break on that front, believe me. He's been around me, Scully, John, Skinner, from day one. We've all seen more than our share of horrors that aren't fit for a three year old mind. He's not absorbing every single thought and memory from every single person. The aliens have a difficult time explaining it to us, because to them it's second nature and to us it's about as far from natural as anything could be, but they've reassured us over and over that there's an inborn sense of what's his and what's not his, and that helps him stabilize and filter. He's not going around just diving into people's minds at random. Because we don't experience it - well, most of us don't anyway - we tend to assume telepaths just read everyone's mind indiscriminately, and pour through every single thought you have. But that's not how it works at all." He tilted his head and his smile faded. "It's me we have to worry the most about, actually. Because most of the rest of the world isn't telepathic, Will's experience of other people and his experience of me are two different things. And because I wasn't raised with it, because it 'woke up' so late in life and so traumatically for me, I don't have a lot of the protections and filters and disciplines in place. So I'm in a lot more dangerous position of accidentally leaking nasty thoughts into the poor kid's head than anyone else is. He could hardly tolerate my presence for most of the first year."

Alex's eyes finally left Will, and he looked at Mulder in surprise. "He couldn't?"

Mulder shook his head, his heart aching all over again at the thought. "Screamed bloody murder whenever he was left alone with me. Hell, every time I came in the room, although having other, buffering people present helped. Scully in particular."

"Ouch."

"Yeah. I'd pretty much decided he hated me, and I was ready to crawl away in disgrace and just let John and Scully raise him as theirs."

"John. Doggett? And... Scully?" Alex was back to watching Will.

"Oh yes. Yes, indeed."

"Yeah, I can see that," Alex mused. "I thought I was picking up a little of that, way back when."

Mulder sighed. Had everyone seen it but him? Monica, Skinner... even Alex, who didn't even have the benefit of being around Scully practically every day. Sometimes he just felt incredibly myopic, in spite of his amazing observational and deductive powers.

"Is she... happy?"

Mulder grinned, kneeling by the bed and running a hand over Will's hair, then kissing his forehead. "She's very happy. John is really good for her. He adores her, and would do anything for her. And she's got this little guy. Yeah, she's doing great."

Alex nodded. "Good. She deserves it."

Mulder straightened. Everyone deserves it but you, hmm, Alex? "Yes, she does."

"The Rebels... they didn't try to mess with him, did they?"

"With Will? No. Actually they were very respectful. They were obviously dying to do any number of 'investigations' on him, as they called it, but Scully was adamant. They never pushed and always treated Scully's least word as law."

A small smile flitted over Alex's mouth, but was gone so fast Mulder wondered if he actually saw it. "Good," Alex repeated, although this time he sounded... satisfied, as opposed to the soft, distant voice.

Mulder got a sudden suspicion, that felt very much like the suspicions he got around Will. "Did you... say something to the Rebels?"

Alex blinked, and his expression became remote. "I said things to the Rebels all the time."

"You told them to leave Will alone." He made it a statement, Alex's reaction confirming his thoughts.

Alex's mouth hardened, and his eyelids lowered. Still without looking at Mulder, he said irritably, "I just asked them to stay the hell away from her and hers. That she'd been through more than enough." He jerked his chin at Will. "I knew he was going to be... special. I knew they'd be very interested."

"Thank you," Mulder murmured. "She... she'll be... well, I know she appreciated it more than you can imagine. How respectful they were of her wishes."

"Oh, I can imagine," Alex snorted. He turned on his heel, but paused, and glanced over his shoulder one last time. "He really likes... that?" His chin jerked again toward the sleeping child.

Mulder grinned at the familiar sight of Will's face snuggled into the stuffed weasel. "I meant it. It's his favorite. Would he still have it three years later if it wasn't?"

The ghost of the smile came and went in the blink of an eye, and then Alex looked thoughtful again. "Anything else showing up? Besides the levitating?"

"Not so far," Mulder shook his head. "Just the preternatural intelligence and completely un-toddler-like attention span. People who don't know him think he's autistic. We're watching. Closely."

Alex nodded and opened his mouth again, but the bedroom door opening stopped whatever he'd been about to say. They both looked up as Walter entered in sweats, freshly showered and shaved, book in hand. He paused just through the door. "Did you decide to sleep in here after all?"

"Oh, no." Mulder waved a hand at the bed. "Go ahead." He stepped back to let Walter pass, and went to the door, pausing when Alex didn't follow.

Alex snapped his fingers for the puppy, but Sheldon just lifted his head and looked from Will to Alex with sad eyes. Alex sighed and snapped again.

Walter smiled. "It's okay with me if he stays."

"Are you sure?" Alex frowned. "He'll wake you up to go out."

"Think I can handle it." Walter stroked the puppy's head.

"Well, hopefully he'll come and get me. If he doesn't, just come wake me up. No need for you to go out in the snow in the middle of the night."

Walter nodded. "Right. Much better idea for you to, since you're sick and all."

Alex gave him an exasperated look and started for the door. Mulder watched the entire interchange with an annoyed sensation growing in the pit of his stomach. "Leave the door open a crack so he can get out to me," Alex tossed over his shoulder, and brushed by Mulder.

Mulder nodded to Walter. "Goodnight." He followed Alex out and closed the door almost all the way on Walter's reply. Arriving back in the living room, he found Alex had disappeared into the bathroom. He went ahead and changed out of his jeans and shirt and into his sweats, pacing himself carefully just in case Alex came out in time to get a nice eyeful. Finally, he gave up and stretched out on the couch, feeling even less inclined to sleep than usual.

When Alex reappeared, he almost bounced up off the couch. Alex looked a question at him and waved a hand at the television. "Feel free to watch something if you want. I can sleep through anything." He went straight to the red chair and sat, levering the recliner back and pulling a quilt off the arm of it to spread over himself.

"Oh... okay." Mulder shifted his weight from one foot to the other. As Alex tipped the chair all the way back, the bottoms of his socks came into view. They had lines of little green Christmas trees on the soles. Mulder smiled. "Where did you get those things?"

"Huh?"

"The socks. And why are the trees only on the bottom?"

"Oh... they were a present. It was a Yankee Swap thing at the school. I ended up with these. And the trees are that anti-skid stuff. Like the bottom of hospital slippers."

Mulder nodded, still amused at the incongruous sight of Alex Krycek with Christmas stockings on his feet. "Are you sure you're supposed to wear them? Not hang them up on the fireplace?"

Alex waved at the wood stove. "No fireplace. And Santa stopped filling stockings for me a long time ago." He wriggled a bit in the chair, then closed his eyes. "Goodnight, Mulder."

Mulder grimaced. That was a clear message. Well, fine. He needed to go brush his teeth anyway. He'd let Alex settle in and relax. He headed for the bathroom, but Alex's scratchy voice stopped him.

"By the way, I leave this lamp on." Alex pointed to the lamp beside his chair without opening his eyes. His hand fell back to his chest.

Mulder nodded, realized Alex couldn't see him, and spoke. "Okay." He waited another moment but when nothing more was forthcoming, he continued on to the bathroom.

All through pissing and washing his face and hands, he rehearsed his opening lines. He brushed his teeth and tried out different versions in his head. Thought about what would be most likely to get Alex over onto the couch with him while he gargled with mouthwash and brushed his hair. Finally, he leaned over, inspected himself once more in the mirror, and returned to the living room.

To find Alex snoring softly, his chest rising and falling rhythmically.

How the hell did someone who was sick fall asleep that fast? He sank onto the couch, flicked on the tv remote and violently but silently cursed his way through every channel on Alex's extensive cable offerings.

pov change

Alex kept his breathing even and regular, the picture of sleep. An old hand at resting his body even if he couldn't actually fall asleep, he relaxed every muscle as best he could, keeping his jaw lax and his hands uncurled, fostering the deception.

At the moment, sleep was more about escape than rest. His head was too damn full to take any more. He knew Mulder, and apparently getting some of his answers and taking out the aliens hadn't done a damn thing for his insomnia. Alex was hardly surprised. But expecting it didn't mean he wanted to put up with it. He was in no mood to be on the receiving end of Mulder's intense focus and curiosity.

He just couldn't talk about this, think about this, or listen to anything more about this tonight. Everything felt like too much and his brain wanted to check out. He knew, logically, that was partly due to the flu. He also knew that even if he'd been at the peak of health, he'd still be finding the sudden appearance of Mulder and Skinner overwhelming.

The television volume blipped up and back down just enough that he could tell Mulder was trying subtly to see if the change in volume would wake him up. He ignored him completely in favor of wondering how the two of them had come to an agreement on who was going to sleep where. Which sent his mind reeling right back to the fact that they both wanted to sleep in the same room with him.

He shied away from it before realizing it was exactly what was feeling overwhelming, and it was the thing that most needed thinking about. Them reappearing, being pleased to see him alive, explaining the admittedly bizarre circumstances surrounding their roles in his death - that was fine. Might be 'healing' even, though he scoffed at the concept most of the time. Connecting with him about the fall of the Consortium and his role in it, talking about their various experiences with the war and the fallout, maybe even delving into old business and talking about some of it openly... that was a lot but it could be understood and handled, if that was what they really wanted. Once calmed down and convinced they weren't simply here to kill him all over again, Alex could even see the benefit to all that.

But... the extra dimension of feelings, attractions, old emotions that never really went away? Ouch. Feelings that were apparently returned?

Did they mean it? Could they mean it? They had both said enough, or thought enough in Mulder's case, at one point or another tonight to clearly intimate an interest beyond the purely professional. An attraction of the sort he'd assumed he'd been the only one experiencing back then. How did he deal with that? On top of the shock of everything, readjusting his mindset from the last two years, realizing they didn't hate him. Not only didn't hate him, but... what? Exactly? He definitely didn't want to assume, and get it wrong.

To say nothing of whether any of it would outlast 24 hours. Part of him truly believed they were both under some kind of delusion brought on by the guilt of believing him dead, and finding him alive. Two years made for a long time of sitting under the weight of thinking they should have prevented it somehow. It was still a shock to hear they had been conflicted at all, that they'd felt any guilt. But obviously they did and had and he needed to just swallow that piece, and move past it to the next question - was whatever attraction making them bristle at each other over him just a function of that guilt, or something more? Something real?

And how did he feel about that?

Pure giddiness swept through him and he felt dizzy even in his reclined position. The two men he'd fantasized about alternately and together over years of fucked up interactions, suddenly wanting him. Skinner had always made him weak in the knees, from the first time he'd been introduced. He had a... quality about him that just made Alex want to sit up and beg. Roll over on command. Spread his legs to have his tummy rubbed...

Oh for fuck's sake STOP IT. That is more than enough. His reaction to Skinner had always irritated the hell out of him, and the annoyance hadn't diminished with time. He just finally got used to it after he realized it wasn't going to go away. He could still remember the first time he'd met the man... the way his dick sprang to attention and kept him distracted and fretful the entire time, wondering if Skinner would notice.

At the time, he'd thought Skinner was in as deep as he was. He'd assumed from Spender's comments that Skinner was completely 'his' man, that he willingly worked for the Consortium. During that first meeting, he'd entertained thoughts of propositioning the man if he could get an encouraging read on his orientation, figuring the usual workplace politics wouldn't be an issue once Skinner knew they were both outside the pale in the FBI.

He'd caught on pretty damn quick. Once he stopped wondering if his hard-on was visibly tenting his suit pants, he'd actually tuned in to the interactions between Skinner and Spender and noticed the tension and animosity. With a little digging on his own, he'd found out Skinner was at best a reluctant puppet, at worst a subtle and active enemy. He shelved his thoughts of approach and tried to suppress and forget his attraction. That attempt was about as successful as a shovel against an avalanche. As the years wore on and things got increasingly complicated, Walter Skinner had ended up getting him in no end of trouble. The nanocytes alone accounted for-

Alex heard the remote drop to the rug with a thump, then clatter over onto the wood floor. "Whoops," came Mulder's slightly-too-loud response, "Sorry about that." Then "Oh damn!" Pause. "Did I wake you?"

He had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. Please, Mulder. Get a little more obvious. To hit both the rug and the floor, no doubt that remote got 'dropped' with strategic aim. He kept his breathing regular, making a soft snorting sound but nothing else. He supposed he'd have to be careful about not sleeping through anything too loud, or else Mulder would know he was faking anyway. As it was, Mulder was likely doubting an ex-assassin would be sleeping that soundly. But I'm sick. That should give me a little leeway.

Ah, Mulder. Mulder... had taken a little more time than just the one meeting. Certainly, Alex had noticed the man's sexual appeal immediately. It was hard not to, except for the fact that the man himself seemed so completely unaware of his physical magnetism. But he'd gone in knowing Mulder was off-limits. Well, for that matter, he'd gone in thinking Mulder was a nut job who was two minutes from hitting psychotic breakdown and being trucked away in a straight jacket.

Not so realistic a portrait, all in all. The one thing Alex would always fault the Consortium for the most, among all the other failings, was their deliberate misinformation to each other and their operatives. Idiots. They all so jealously guarded their pieces of the puzzle and misled each other out of suspicion and fear, they ended up hamstringing their own operatives more than half the time. In the same way that Spender hadn't been forthcoming about Walter Skinner's position in the organization before introducing Alex as a new agent to a new supervisor, he'd also given Alex a completely faulty background on Fox Mulder.

Idiots idiots idiots. As if one week in Mulder's presence wasn't enough for anyone to realize the pure gold under the quirks, the depression, the overwhelming pain-in-the-assness.

If nothing else, it was the pain-in-the-assness that had won Alex over. In short order, he'd become impressed with just how fucking annoying Mulder could be, both to himself as the 'new partner', and to Scully, the ex-partner he so desperately wanted back. Not to mention to Skinner. And Spender. Alex almost started laughing all over again as the list grew in his head.

But the fact remained that faulty profile or no, he'd gone in knowing Fox Mulder was off limits. As a rule, Alex was damn good at controlling himself, redirecting his impulses, and keeping himself away from people who represented lost causes or forbidden fruit - one of the reasons his continued reaction to Skinner irritated him so much, once he'd realized the extent to which Skinner was indeed lost to him. He'd started out assuming Mulder straight and in love with Scully. Then after spending time with him and watching the two interact, he'd begun assuming Mulder was asexual or primarily auto-erotic. Wouldn't have been the first time he'd met someone of either of those persuasions. In fact, he'd often speculated his own orientation was closer to asexual than anything else.

So imagine his surprise to find Fox Mulder growing exponentially as a source of endless fascination for him. It was the mind, the intensity, the purity of purpose combined with the preternatural instincts and staggering intellect. The complete social backwardness combined with the urbane charmer he could become in the right circumstances. The overwhelming, hungering emotional need coupled with the standoffish, loner sensibilities. The omnipresent air of depression juxtaposed with the insane sense of humor and sly wit. The warped fucked-up-ness wrapped tightly in the whole 'holding-it-all-together, staying sane, and still making life miserable for you Consortium bastards' package.

Mulder spent his life giving the finger to authority. In a very real way, he inspired Alex to become the omnipresent thorn in the side of the Consortium he had slowly morphed into.

With Mulder, the attraction was more intellectual, more emotional, and all the more sneaky for it. It crawled in through the cracks in his walls, burrowed into the heart of his being, and grew into a warming appreciation for those physical charms, until Alex couldn't repress and ignore the man's blatant sexiness any longer, no matter how off limits he was. Until the crackling tension between them sparked with arousal and started functioning like a gravitational pull.

With Skinner it was all instant earthy passion and a strong desire to rub up against the man and purr until it turned into a yowl. Scratch away all the civilized layers, lure and tease out the beast of aggression and power just under that controlled surface, then get down on hands and knees with his ass in the air to be mounted when the beast finally erupted. In turn, that heat evolved into a stronger interest... slowly grew into respect and admiration, and an eventually acknowledged desire for the man to respect him back.

He'd written both off as lost causes. They'd haunted him and dominated his dreams and changed his life in ways he didn't even know if he could verbalize. They inspired him and pissed him off. Frustrated him with their stupid honor and naiveté.

Mulder rolled off the couch, his feet hit the floor with a thud, and he managed to walk into the coffee table and the chair across from Alex on his way out of the room to the bathroom. Alex wondered how long he could keep this up. He supposed it might help if he actually fell asleep, so he could ignore it better. His mind just didn't want to stop spinning the dials, letting his thoughts unspool. He ran through a short relaxation exercise, and managed to float a little further away by the time Mulder clomped back from the bathroom and flopped onto the couch.

The channels started flipping again, and he tuned it out to white noise, let the nonsensical blur of half-sounds draw him away from thinking. He disconnected his brain from the meaning and just focused on the syllables. Mulder's body twisting and turning and resettling on the couch joined with the rest, part of a whole rather than jarring. Between one breath and the next, the last threads broke and the last thing he knew was a warm glow of fuzzy wonder that his lost causes had been found.

W

alter woke when the puppy walked up his chest and licked his face. A soft whuffle and a cold nose in his ear brought him to full alertness. He opened his eyes to see Sheldon's fuzzy little face peering down into his, ears perked forward and flopping. "Hello," he mumbled, before remembering Will lay beside him. He sat up, lifting the puppy, and looked at the boy.

Will's eyelids flickered and lifted, and he smiled sweetly. Walter smiled back. "I'm going to go take Sheldon outside," he whispered.

"'Kay." Will curled on his side, snuggled back into the pillows and his eyelids drooped again before Walter even got off the bed. He mused on Scully's luck in getting a kid who apparently didn't have all of Mulder's quirks. He couldn't imagine an insomniac toddler would be much fun. Setting Sheldon on the floor, he stood, stretched, and checked the time.

7am. He was used to being up as early or earlier, so it didn't surprise him, despite the tiring day and late night. He pulled on his sweatshirt and wandered out of the bedroom with Sheldon's toenails clicking on the floor behind him. The puppy led him straight to the back door, and he opened it to a gust of soft snow. Shivering, he leaned out the door to watch as the puppy ran right into the puffy whiteness. The snow still came down steadily, if not with quite the driving intensity of the night before. The accumulation was impressive. Much as he wanted to tell Mulder to just take the SUV and go on to his speaking gigs alone, he doubted anyone would be traveling down to Massachusetts anytime soon. Sheldon came bounding back, and Walter stood aside for him then closed and locked the door again.

Following the puppy again, Walter headed for the kitchen, pausing long enough to scope out the small living room. Mulder sprawled, one leg perilously close to slipping off the couch, one arm dangling almost to the floor, the tv remote under his fingers. The other arm was flung up over his head, his hand across his face.

Alex's chair sat empty. A quilt lay bunched over the recliner, trailing down onto the floor. A slow smile curled across Walter's face, and before resuming his path to the kitchen, he detoured to the bathroom and his toothbrush.

Returning to the living room moments later, he checked on Mulder - still asleep - and pushed on through to the kitchen. Success... Alex stood at the counter beside the sink, his back to the room, talking softly to the puppy at his feet. Sheldon munched away at his kibble. Walter stood silent, just letting his eyes roam. Alex's hair stood straight up on top of his head, and partway down the left side. Walter's lips twitched as Alex's hand rose to rifle through his hair, as if he felt the gaze. His sweatshirt lifted with the arch of his arm, and Walter's eyes traveled down to the bare skin exposed by the rising hem of the old sweatshirt. Alex's waist had never been body-builder slim, although the breadth of his shoulders and chest lent itself to the impression. But in truth he was stocky, just to Walter's taste. He preferred actual flesh to the pared down skin-and-bones look favored by professional models and a number of men who traveled gay circles. He'd always liked curves in his women, and perhaps it had spilled over into the type of man he appreciated.

And he'd always appreciated a nice, full ass. His perusal dropped again and he felt a stirring of interest at the way Alex's sweats clung to the roundness of a truly stellar ass. Even at the height of his most conflicted feelings about Alex, he'd never failed to notice that the man had one hell of a gorgeous rear view. At the worst of times, it had just infuriated him more that he did always notice.

Now though... no self-recriminations, no guilt, no irritation or rage. Just pure appreciation for delicious, squeezable, fuckable cheeks beneath a thin layer of clinging cotton. The sweat pants hung low on Alex's hips but had been washed often enough - or Alex had enjoyed just enough hot chocolate - to be just a little tight. Stretched as they were, Walter could state with certainty that Alex didn't like to sleep in underwear. The thought just fueled the burgeoning fantasy of walking over and pushing Alex face down over the counter, dragging down the sweats in back and-

"Oh! I didn't hear you come in... I hope he-"

Walter mourned the visual loss as Alex swung around. He let his eyes rest for a moment on the crotch of the sweats - not nearly as interesting at the moment as the rear view - then dragged his gaze back upward to Alex's face, allowing his slow return trip to be as obvious as possible. He was rewarded by a flush of pink on Alex's cheeks when he got there, and he let a hungry smile curl across his face. "Morning Alex," he cut off Alex's startled babble.

Alex stepped away from the counter and ran both hands through his hair as if trying to flatten it. "Uh... morning. Did Sheldon wake you up? I thought I heard the door and he doesn't seem to-"

"Yes, but it was fine," Walter interrupted again, moving forward into the kitchen with a purposeful stride. He almost laughed as Alex backed up a step. He kept right on coming despite the telling body language, and only stopped when he stood just a little too close, inside Alex's personal space. Just enough so Alex had to tilt his head back a bit to maintain eye contact. Which he did. Walter watched the eyes widen and softened his smile. "I really love your... puppy, Alex."

He watched the stretched throat work as Alex swallowed hard. "Th-thanks." Eyelashes fluttered and Alex backed up another step. Walter followed.

"He's adorable. And very well-behaved." Another step back and one more to follow. "He was quiet all night and very polite about waking me up this morning." Walter let his voice drop lower. "Although I can think of another resident of this house that I'd prefer to be the one to lick me awake." He let his attention drift to Alex's lips and had the pleasure of watching the mouth open and close twice before sound came out.

"I'm glad he didn't wake you," Alex's voice cracked as he backed up one more step, then winced. "I mean... until this morning. With the licking thing. Because he... uh... does that. Licks. And... well, I mean-"

"I know what you mean," Walter cut in smoothly, stepping in even closer this time. Alex responded exactly as intended, stepping back the one last step that bumped him up against the sink counter. He jerked in surprise then flattened himself against the barrier, immediately lifting his chin, trying to appear unaffected. But his hands gripped the counter edge on either side, whitening knuckles giving him away.

Walter set his left hand against the counter just beside Alex's right and leaned in, appreciating the way Alex's breathing quickened as he narrowed the distance yet again and cut off any escape at the same time. "What's got you up so early? I thought you'd sleep longer, being sick and all." He lifted his other hand and brushed an imaginary something off Alex's shoulder, then glanced out the window behind them at the snow. "Can't imagine you're going to be going anywhere today?"

"It's... well, the... I'm sick." Alex stopped, and an irritated look flitted across his face. He cleared his throat and his voice came much steadier when he replied, "I mean I usually don't sleep that well when I'm sick, and wake up early."

Walter nodded, noting with satisfaction that if Alex was getting a handle on himself, it was time to throw him off-balance again. "I know what you mean. Of course I'm just an... early riser, anyway." He met Alex's eyes with a perfectly straight face. "Getting up has never been an issue." He paused for a beat then continued, "So, what are the chances I can convince you to let me stay here while we send Mulder off to his Massachusetts speaking tour? I'd like to be able to spend some concentrated time with you. Alone."

As expected, the increasing relaxation brought on by the bland health commiseration shifted to suspicion at the potential double entendre, then rocketed straight on through to stunned disbelief at the casual question. "What?" The hoarse voice jumped at least an octave.

Walter leaned closer, and lifted his right hand to rest on Alex's shoulder, one finger stretching to stroke Alex's throat. "Can't very well declare my intentions and start the seduction process if I don't have the opportunity to stick around and spend more time with you, now can I? I don't work well on a 24 hour-or-less deadline." He shrugged as if it was only practical. Curling his hand around to the nape of Alex's neck, he slid it up into the spiky hair, cradling the back of Alex's skull, and dipped his head in for a kiss.

In spite of the bold move, when he reached his destination his lips just brushed Alex's and his tongue flickered out in a tentative swipe, tasting coffee. He heard Alex's indrawn breath, felt him stiffen, and eased back to better gauge reaction. The flush had risen in Alex's cheeks again, and his eyes were wider than ever. But he didn't push at Walter or try to move away. He didn't say 'stop' or 'don't', he didn't glare, or even look displeased. In fact, he stared up at Walter with an almost limpid look that made Walter's half-hard cock swell further. Walter leaned his body in the last inch, pressing up against Alex from thighs to chest, and lowered his head again with obvious intent.

This time he caught Alex's mouth firmly with his own and deepened the kiss immediately. He explored with his tongue, starting by stroking over the parting lips, then urging them further apart with increasing pressure. Alex made a soft noise and tilted his head to accommodate the invasion, his body pressing back against Walter rather than simply being caught between him and the shelf. Walter almost shouted in triumph when he felt an answering hardness nudging his thigh, and then hands catching on his shoulders as Alex responded.

His hand in Alex's hair stroked down over his nape and lower, between his shoulder blades, then on down to Alex's lower back where it settled, guiding his hips in tighter. Alex made another muffled mewl, and suddenly the hands on Walter's shoulders were arms wrapping around his neck, and Alex's mouth moved against his own, opening to him further. Walter released the counter and let his other hand wander down to the firm, round ass, squeezing in delight. Alex moaned louder and his hips twisted against Walter's crotch, bringing a rush of sensation.

With that encouraging reaction, Walter didn't hesitate in cupping the ass cheek and squeezing again. Alex's thigh lifted against the outside of his own, and Walter curled his fingers into the shifting flesh. The sweatpants moved with his hand, and without conscious decision he tightened his fingers and tugged, feeling the material stretch and slide downward. His other hand worked its way from the base of the spine to the dip at the top of Alex's cleft, then slipped easily inside the sweats to find warm bare skin.

Delicious. Pure, heady delight, to feel this man melting in his hands, to finally touch and receive just the response he could have wanted... hell, better than he imagined. He pinched the ample flesh on both sides - one cheek through the sweatpants, the other on skin - and was rewarded with another wriggle. He stood straighter and sank his teeth into Alex's lower lip, tugging gently as he rocked Alex's hips against his own with a firm grip on both buttocks. Alex gasped at being moved against Walter's steady body, riding the motion, his arms tightening around Walter's neck.

When Walter lifted his head this time, Alex fought to draw in breath, eyelids heavy. Walter grinned at the dazed expression, grinned wider at the throaty voice.

"Wow. You're not... fooling around, are you?"

Walter sobered and shook his head. "No more wasted time. Alex, think about it, think about me for a minute. I'm not getting any younger." His lips twisted wryly. "If there's one thing I've learned very thoroughly, it's that life is too damn short and regrets last too damn long. I've spent too much time ruminating on all the things I never got a chance to say to you, talk about with you. Second chances don't get handed out every day, or to just anyone. I don't know what in hell I did to deserve this one, but I'm grabbing it while it's here and taking full advantage."

"Just like that... everything's fine, all the old business wiped away, in the blink of an eye?" Alex's chest continued to heave, and despite his tone of voice, his body still molded to Walter's.

Walter shook his head again. "No, not in a blink. All those things I never got to say? Never got to ask? I want to say them, ask them, talk it all over. I've guessed some things, learned others from the files, from the data. I've put most of the jigsaw puzzle together, but I'd like to have you run over it with me, catch any pieces I might have jammed in where they don't belong. Help me find the missing ones. I don't doubt that it'll all take some time, and I'm more than okay with that. I know I may not like all the pieces I find, or the pattern they get put into. I just..." he stopped, and shrugged helplessly. "No more wasted time," he whispered, leaning his forehead against Alex's. "I'm not going to pretend I don't feel this, or bury it all over again just because it might be inconvenient."

"Inconvenient," Alex murmured, with a hoarse laugh. "That's... one way of putting it."

Walter smiled and nuzzled against Alex's cheek. "For the record, I don't find you inconvenient in the least," he growled, his hands stroking in smooth circular motions over that luscious ass, before tightening his grip again in a firm caress that made Alex's steadying breathing catch again. Pressing the advantage, he moved in again for another rough kiss. When Alex was breathless, he gentled and retreated, playing his tongue over Alex's lips, then swept in with more force. He repeated the pattern over and over, until Alex was limp and clinging to him. He sank into the pure sensual pleasure of exploring this man he'd fantasized about, the man he'd given up as dead, the man he'd mourned for losing the opportunity to do exactly this. He lost himself in testing responses and chasing out squirms and wriggles and gasps. One long leg wrapped tight around Walter's body as Alex rubbed his erection against Walter's thigh. Only the creak of the door behind them dragged Walter from his enjoyment.

Glancing over his shoulder he cursed mentally but smiled at the little boy standing a few feet away, looking up at them speculatively. "Hi Will," he greeted him in a normal voice, or at least as normal as he could make it, all things considered. He slid his hand surreptitiously out of Alex's pants and settled both arms around Alex's waist as he felt the man freeze against him, every muscle locking in tension. He wanted to tell Alex it was okay, that Will was a very well-adjusted child who wouldn't be irreparably damaged by walking into a make-out session in the kitchen. Dana and John didn't take any special precautions around him, and he never seemed to pay them any mind. But he supposed he shouldn't reassure given he couldn't swear to what the kid picked up at moments like this. He settled for easing to the left until they could both see Will, keeping Alex pressed against him in light of the twin erections that would most definitely be tenting sweat pants should they separate.

Alex seemed to appreciate the reasoning, not making any move to shift away. He released his stranglehold around Walter's neck and let his arms settle against Walter's chest. "Morning, Will," he husked, then cleared his throat and tried again. "Sleep okay?"

Will nodded, tilting his head to one side and surveying the men for a moment longer, then looking down at Sheldon, who had bounded up to him the minute he'd entered and now stood bouncing at Will's feet. "Breakfast?" He squatted to hug Sheldon, hands gentle.

"Right, breakfast." Alex looked confused for a moment, then met Walter's eyes and blushed. "Breakfast." At least Will's casual attitude seemed to calm him.

"Breakfast," Walter murmured, grinning. "But don't think I don't realize you haven't answered my question yet." He patted Alex's ass then released him with a wink, watching the wheels turning as Alex tried to count back to what Walter had asked him before the sudden explosion of heat and friction. "The question about can I stay here and commence seduction while we send Mulder on his way," he offered helpfully. Alex immediately turned his back to the room and went to the refrigerator, yanking at the waistband of his sweats as he went, pulling them higher up his waist. Walter snickered, but wiped away any trace of amusement at Alex's glare.

The door swung open again, much faster this time, and Mulder walked in yawning. "Why's everybody up so early," he mumbled, scratching through his hair. Will jumped up and rushed him with a hug, and Mulder swung him up into his arms. "Hey kiddo."

Walter watched as Alex stiffened again, and remained facing the open refrigerator longer than it could possibly take to decide what he wanted out of it. In turn, Walter lounged against the sink counter, making no effort to hide his subsiding erection. He watched with evil glee as Mulder lowered Will back to the floor, then took in Alex's rear view with lazy appreciation. Then slight puzzlement at why Alex was still there, with the door open. His eyes swung to Walter, took in the satisfied expression, swept over him...

Walter nodded and gave him a smug smile. "Morning, Mulder. Sheldon helped me stay on my regular schedule. How was the couch?" He infused the innocent question with as much cheer as possible, making it clear he was well aware sleeping on the couch had provided no advantage whatsoever. Fully awake now, Mulder's mouth thinned to an angry line, and his eyes burned with irritation.

"Fine," he snapped. He turned his attention back to Alex who was finally actually removing eggs and milk from the fridge. "Can I help, Alex?"

"Ah, no, no... that's fine. Just sit," Alex stammered over his shoulder, stepping sideways along the counter and reaching for a pan. "Scrambled eggs? Pancakes?"

"Sounds great," Walter turned and poured himself coffee into one of the thick, handmade mugs sitting next to the pot, then wandered past Alex to the table, running a proprietary hand down Alex's back as he went. Alex's muscles twitched at the touch. Seating himself, Walter managed not to laugh when Mulder threw himself down into another of the kitchen chairs, storm clouds gathering on his face. "You and I should check in about the Massachusetts speaking gigs and Will, Mulder. I'm thinking I may want to take a little extra time here in Vermont when you head down there."

pov change

Mulder stared at Skinner across the table, speechless. The nerve! Not only had he obviously gotten some sort of jump on Alex to put that satisfied smirk on his face and that bulge... Mulder cut off his thought, not particularly wanting to think about Skinner with a hard on. Back to the original source of outrage. The man had not only gotten a jump on Alex - touching him like that! - but he had the sheer gall to sit there and announce he wanted Mulder gone and he wanted to stay.

To hell with any kind of subtlety. Mulder mentally rolled up his sleeves. "I don't know that I want to head down into Massachusetts myself. What with finding Alex, I'm not inclined to take right off again. I can reschedule the talks. I'd rather spend some time getting... reacquainted with Alex." He gave a suggestive smile. Ha. Take that, old man.

Skinner's expression didn't change, but Mulder could see the tension stiffen his shoulders, his fingers tightening on his mug. "But what about all those college students? This is more than just one college. They'll be so disappointed. You know how much you love the college audiences... they're so enthusiastic, and you're preparing the future leaders of the paranormal fields and all that. Surely you're not going to cancel the whole tour. All those arrangements."

Damn practical Skinner. Mulder felt an edging of guilt, even knowing the man was just trying to clear his own path to Alex. Guilt still came far too easily to the Mulder mind. There had been a lot of arrangements, it was extremely short notice to cancel everything and-

He looked over to the stove where Alex stood flipping pancakes and watching over the eggs. The worn sweat pants clung to the full curve of ass cheeks that looked more appetizing than any breakfast he could possibly be making. Alex shifted his weight as he moved between the pans and Mulder enjoyed the view. "Screw the arrangements," he heard his voice saying, and he had to agree, he sounded like he had the right idea. The concept of Alex's ass as breakfast took on a life of its own, and he could just see Alex bending over the table, leaning forward and placing his hands flat on the table, hiking his weight up onto the smooth surface then shimmying forward on his stomach until he lay stretched out in front of Mulder. He'd reach back and catch his thumbs in the waistband of the sweats, and slowly tug down, lifting his hips as he bared his ass. Mulder could just imagine leaning down, nuzzling plump flesh, sinking his teeth in light little nips while Alex moaned and thrust his hips against the table.

"-irresponsible, don't you think?"

Mulder blinked at the intrusion of Skinner's voice. Tearing his eyes away and pushing the fantasy back for the moment, he gave his head a shake and met Skinner's gaze head on. "Maybe. But Alex is more important." A clunk, a sizzle and a yelp greeted the blunt pronouncement from the direction of the stove, and Mulder felt a thrill of triumph, barely resisting the urge to stick out his tongue at Skinner. "Alright there, Alex?"

"Fine," came the hurried response.

Skinner on the other hand looked decidedly unimpressed, his fingers drumming an impatient tattoo against the table. Mulder recognized the look. It was the look of a man who used to have authority over the person pissing him off, and who was just itching to be able to order him to go to Massachusetts and fulfill those convenient speaking duties. Alas, even if this hadn't been outside the bounds of agency work, the direct supervisory relationship just wasn't there any longer, and Mulder could see Skinner's teeth positively grinding in frustration.

Will appeared at Mulder's side and tugged on his father's arm. Mulder helped his son into the chair next to his own, realizing as he did so that he probably ought to keep a rein on his fantasizing with Will around. He didn't worry too much about Will on that front, mostly because the aliens brushed off the human concerns about young telepaths picking up "too much too soon". Still... there were pieces of a parent's mind that just didn't need to be accessed by a three-year-old, and he needed to be cognizant of his control.

It occurred to him that it wasn't something he'd had any reason to be concerned about in some time.

"Well, I still think you should go," Skinner stated in a tightly controlled voice. "It would be rude and unprofessional not to, and with such short notice especially."

"And I'm so well known for my professional behavior," Mulder agreed with a perfectly straight face. Skinner raised his eyebrows and looked downright disgusted. Mulder ignored the expression, and continued, "Besides, what about Will? You're just going to jump off your 'second adult' duty?"

Skinner smiled, and Mulder cursed mentally, wondering what he'd missed. "Actually, I've been thinking about that," Skinner said smoothly, and Mulder cursed again. "I thought it would make more sense for Will to stay here with me. We keep to the two adult standard," he lifted his hand and waved it at Alex, "and Will could have a lot more fun here in the woods, enjoying the snow, playing with Sheldon. More fun than hanging out with just me on a string of college campuses. I mean, as long as it would be okay with Alex. Wouldn't you like that, Will?"

Mulder turned to his son, already trying to determine what mental images he could form that would be understandable, and get across that he wanted Will to demand they all stay here. He was startled to find Will already staring at him intently, his head propped on one little arm. Struck by Will's intent expression, his own efforts to prejudice Will's answer stuttered to a halt.

Will straightened in his seat at Skinner's question, his eyes never leaving Mulder's face. He stayed silent for another long moment, but they were all used to his slow verbalizations, so no one rushed him. Still holding his father's gaze, Will finally pronounced, "Daddy like Alex."

Mulder almost burst out laughing. Honestly, concerns about Will picking up "too much" aside, he couldn't have come up with a better answer for the boy to give. Even though it hadn't been a question, he grabbed the opportunity it presented. "Yes, Daddy does like Alex," he confirmed seriously, nodding. He heard another clatter at the stove and just smiled.

Will gave his father a look that clearly said "duh, I just told you that," and then swung his sharp gaze across the table to Skinner. "Uncle Walter like Alex." It was no more a question than his first observation had been. Will nodded to himself and added, "Lots" with emphasis.

Skinner, just taking a drink of coffee, choked. Coughing, he set the mug down with a hard clunk. Lifting watering eyes back to the table, he wheezed for a moment, then caught his breath and managed, "Yes, indeed he does." Mulder didn't miss the amusement in his eyes as he looked at Will.

Adorable little traitor. Mulder sighed. So much for getting a leg up that way.

Will's considering expression didn't change, in fact if anything it intensified as he looked over at Alex, who still faced resolutely away from all of them, much more absorbed than eggs and pancakes could possibly demand. "Will like Sheldon," he finally announced, then swung back to Mulder. "Stay with Alex." He nodded as if that settled the matter. He reached out and clutched Mulder's forearm, as if to make it clear he intended his father stay as well, but before Mulder could clarify with him Skinner had run with the opening.

"There, see Mulder? Will would like to stay here." Skinner's voice held a note of triumph.

"And I suppose you'll explain it all to Scully," Mulder drawled.

Skinner opened his mouth to respond, then paused. "I'm... sure she'll... understand."

"Mm, especially after you tell her Alex Krycek is back from the dead," Mulder nodded helpfully. "Can I listen in on that conversation?" He sat forward and propped his elbows on the table, voice picking up an edge of steel. "No, I think if I were to go to Massachusetts, you'd be coming along with me and Will."

Skinner's eyes narrowed and he sat forward too, unconsciously mimicking Mulder's posture. "I'm quite sure I can discuss the matter rationally with Dana and come to an agreement."

I'll just bet you can, you sneaky bastard. You'll do anything to get him alone, won't you. Mulder heard his own voice rise. "Well, it just so happens I take these trips to have Will with me, so I can spend time with him."

Skinner matched his volume. "You won't be able to spend time with him while you're doing this set of talks anyway. It's one right after another. He and I will be hanging out together anyway. We can do that just as well here. Makes much more sense for you to just come back by this way and pick him up when you're done."

Mulder went one decibel higher. "Actually, I'd say it makes much more sense for me to just cancel my engagements."

Suddenly a plate slammed down on the table between them, piled with pancakes. "Eat," Alex demanded, louder than both of them. His other hand banged down a stack of additional plates hard enough to make Mulder jump, the silverware piled on top rattling and falling to the table. A sharp bark from Sheldon joined the mix. Alex spun away and seconds later glasses, maple syrup and juice thunked down, all followed by a slightly lopsided bowl full of scrambled eggs.

"Just... eat," Alex repeated, one hand raking back through his hair in agitation. When Mulder opened his mouth again, the blazing green glare he got made him shut it immediately.

"Uh... thanks, Alex. This looks great," he offered instead, stabbing pancakes and trying for a conciliatory smile, aware of Will watching Alex with wide eyes.

Alex backed up a step, right shoulder lifting in a half shrug, face somewhere between confused and irritated. He returned to the counter and got the coffee pot, bringing it to the table with another mug for Mulder.

Will reached out and touched Alex's arm as he set the filled mug beside Mulder. Mulder watched Alex freeze, his eyes dropping to the hand on his arm, then lifting to meet Will's gaze. "Bear fall," Will whispered seriously.

Confusion won in Alex's expression. "Bare... what?" He looked to Mulder for an explanation, but Mulder shrugged. He didn't know what Will was talking about.

"Bear fall," Will insisted, pointing to the other end of the table. "Underneath," he added, then ducked his head to look under the table. Puzzled, Alex followed suit, then rose again with a look of comprehension.

"Got ya. Thanks." He walked to the other end of the table and scooped up something off the floor. Mulder tried to get a look at it

"What have you got there?"

"Nothing," Alex said just as Will answered, "Bear." Will held out a hand to Alex with a hopeful look.

"Bear? Come on, Alex, show us the bear." Mulder mimicked Will's hopeful look.

Alex snorted and shifted from foot to foot and looked uncomfortable and embarrassed, but finally slid a greeting card across the table to Will. Will smiled happily and picked it up, pointing to the cartoon bear in sunglasses on the front. "Bear," he told Mulder seriously.

"Aw, and a very cute one at that," Mulder grinned. For some reason, the thought of bad ass Alex Krycek getting greeting cards with bears frolicking in the sunshine just tickled him. Alex's intimidating glare was back, but Mulder ignored it to pluck the card out of Will's hand and look at the name inside. "Lara. Isn't that the girl from last night? The cute little punky one playing guard dog for you? She was very protective of you. Hmm, sending you get well cards, standing up to strange men for you... does someone have a crush? Alex! I was just kidding with the girlfriend remark! You're not fooling around with the students are you?"

"No, I am not," Alex snapped, obviously offended by the very idea. Mulder had to bite back a laugh at the thought of the poster child for moral ambiguity bridling at the suggestion of improper congress with a college student. One who'd looked fully of age, at that. "And she does not have a crush on me."

Skinner snorted over his scrambled eggs but otherwise didn't comment. Mulder raised his eyebrows. "Alex, she was practically arching her back and hissing at us."

Alex rolled his eyes and finally sat down on the other side of Skinner, across from Will. "She's a friend. I do have them, you know. She's a very sweet girl who happens to be very good at Russian. She's an excellent student and we get along."

"None of which says she can't have a crush on you," Mulder reasoned.

Alex's stabbed a pancake with extreme prejudice. "For chrissakes, Mulder..." He glanced at Will and lowered his voice, though how he hoped to avoid Will's attention when the boy was staring at him quite enraptured, Mulder didn't know. "She's gay, okay? Trust me, she does NOT have a crush on me... I'm not her type."

"Ah ha!" Mulder nodded. "Lot of that going around all of a sudden." He sent a dark look Skinner's way and got a mild smirk in return. It irritated him no end that he hadn't caught on to Skinner's sexual flexibility in all the time he worked for him. He prided himself on his extraordinary ability to read people, and missing something that big about someone he'd known so long pricked his ego. He'd caught it in a flash the previous night in the dining hall, the minute he'd seen the way Skinner touched Alex. How had he missed it all those years? Probably had to do with not thinking about Skinner as a sexual entity at all. He stamped down on his irritation and swung his attention back to Alex. "And don't worry about Will. I'm quite sure he understands the general concept of gay, if not the specific language. Telepaths pick up on a lot, especially if it's connected to emotion." He tousled his son's hair.

Alex flushed and was suddenly very absorbed in massacring his pancakes.

"And you know, I still say she's got a bit of a crush," Mulder continued innocently. "I saw the way she looked at you, hovered over you. This whole sexual orientation thing isn't always black and white, you know." When Alex looked ready to break in again, Mulder let a sexy grin curve his lips and cut him off with, "After all, if anyone could tempt someone who's not into men, it'd be you."

Whatever Alex had been about to say died on his lips and his mouth opened, closed, opened again, and still nothing came out. His whole expression screamed 'did I just hear what I think I just heard?' Mulder added a wink to confirm his hearing was accurate. Alex's mouth snapped closed. Flustered, he went back to savaging the pancakes. Mulder turned a smirk back on Skinner, who sat rolling his eyes. Despite the outward display, Mulder could still sense the older man's irritation hanging heavy in the air, undercut with an edge of anxiety. That's right, you should be worried. I'm not going to conveniently disappear into Massachusetts and I'm perfectly willing to fight dirty.

He didn't quite expect Skinner to relax back in his chair, and lift his mug, staring at it thoughtfully. "Say, Alex," Skinner spoke as if the thought was just occurring, though Mulder could read calculation in every pseudo-casual move. "These mugs are beautiful. They match the bowl don't they?" He tapped one finger against the lopsided egg bowl.

Mulder looked from his mug to the bowl. They did have a similar coloring and style in the swirling glaze. Now that it had been drawn to his attention, he could also see a consistent... off-center quality in all the mugs and the bowl that definitely connected them. 'Beautiful' wouldn't be the adjective that leaped to mind, but-

Alex's surprised pleasure fairly shouted across the table as he lifted his head from his plate and a fleeting smile crossed his face. "Thank you. I mean... yes, they do match."

At the opening thanks, Skinner lifted an eyebrow and looked inquiring. "Alex, you didn't-" Skinner lifted his mug higher and checked the bottom. "You did! Hidden talents, have we?"

Mulder wanted to kick himself. How stupid could he get? He lifted his own mug higher and sure enough, a tiny "AK" was carved in the clay of the bottom. Son of a bitch. How had Skinner known? There was no way just looking at bad pottery would clue him in that Alex might have made it. And now he couldn't even compliment it without looking like a lame schmuck.

Alex shrugged and the small smile reappeared, though he avoided Skinner's gaze by focusing on Will. "Needed to pick up a hobby. It's... fun. The school has all the facilities and I'm so close, it's like having my own studio and kiln."

Skinner smirked across the table at Mulder, and mouthed 'trained observer', tapping the side of his glasses unobtrusively with one finger. Then he reached out and stroked that finger down the back of Alex's hand. "Nice to learn a new skill, isn't it? Especially working with your hands."

Mulder's irritation returned in a rush at the nuance Skinner managed to work into the words, and flared even higher when Alex flushed, but didn't jerk his hand away. He was reassured by the fact that Alex's eyes cut to him uncomfortably, but it seemed paltry by comparison. Exactly how far ahead could Skinner get in one brief morning? Could he and Alex have had a prior involvement, back when Alex had first appeared in their lives? It didn't seem possible, but Mulder of all people knew not to drop anything carelessly into the 'impossible' category.

Between one moment and the next, he became conscious of a tiny low pressure system brewing beside him, the familiar feel of Will in a thoughtful mood. It was all the warning he had before a small fist impacted with the table, and Will bounced up and down in his chair. "Stay?" he caroled at the top of his lungs, eyes fixed on Alex.

Alex jerked in surprise, and withdrew his hand. Mulder hid a smile behind his hand with a fake cough, then joined in. "Well, what do you say, Alex? We'd all like to stay. I realize it's a small house, and of course I don't want to put you out, but I am going to cancel my other speaking engagements. And Will would love to stay here..." He trailed off, and sure enough, his son reacted on cue, bouncing again and nodding vigorously before pronouncing, "Stay!"

Skinner looked annoyed, Alex looked caught. Mulder didn't like pressuring Alex, especially when he had a vested interest in presenting a friendlier, more reasonable Mulder to the man, but with Skinner charging forward no holds barred, he didn't trust the man out of his sight with Alex.

"I... uh... well... why don't we see what's happening with the weather before we... well, before we make any... you know... final decisions," Alex stammered, picking up his half eaten breakfast and pushing away from the table. "Let's figure out if anyone can get anywhere, and go from there. It's still snowing, but we should check the radio." He walked to the sink, turning his back on them again.

Skinner scowled at Mulder and Mulder scowled right back at him. He had no doubt Skinner blamed him for Alex's uneasy recalcitrance, but Mulder's own theory laid the fault right back at Skinner's feet. He was merely battling back. It was Skinner who had started the tactless push to stay at Alex's.

Skinner rose and followed Alex to the sink. "I'll go take a look at the yard, see what shoveling needs to be done. No sense letting it all sit until the end of the storm."

"Wait, you don't have to do the shoveling," Alex started, but Skinner cut him off.

"You're sick, Alex," he stated firmly, leaning past him to put his dishes in the sink. "I don't care if you think you're feeling better, you are not shoveling. Check out the radio and the road conditions if you want, but unless you tell me you have a plow coming, I'll be taking care of the yard." His hand rose and delivered a light smack to Alex's ass to punctuate, and he left the kitchen.

Judging by the look on Alex's face, he was as surprised as Mulder. And equally incensed, Mulder noted with glee after he managed to tamp down his annoyance at Skinner's casual approach to touching Alex. He could see Alex's teeth clench even as his cheeks went pink.

After scraping his leftovers into the trash, Alex mumbled something about checking the state of the roads and left the kitchen with Sheldon trailing behind.

Mulder sat and pondered, while Will happily added more maple syrup to his pancakes. He could either meet the unspoken challenge and go help Skinner shovel so Alex wouldn't have to, or he could risk looking like he was avoiding shoveling, take advantage of Skinner's excessive machismo, and capitalize on some time with Alex without Skinner hanging around complimenting his pottery and touching him.

Watching Will cleaning syrup off his plate with his fingers, Mulder smiled slowly. "Hey kiddo. After you finish eating and we get you all cleaned up, wouldn't you like to play outside in the snow with Uncle Walter and the puppy?"

pov change

Alex flipped around on the weather channel until Walter came out of the bedroom dressed for the outdoors. He cast a quick glance over as Walter bent to put his boots on, well-worn denim stretching across a well-formed ass. Caught, Alex appreciated the view, feeling the simmering heat flaring up again low in his pelvis.

Ever since Walter had initiated that little tango in the kitchen, Alex had been suffering the rough edge of arousal chafing him, keeping his balls warm and full, his cock suffused with sensation. Even after he'd gotten himself calmed down with the blast of cold air from the fridge, it had continued. All through the cooking, and the eating, and the trying to focus on conversation and keep from making a total fool of himself. Just enough to be distracting, to make his entire crotch feel heated and tingling. It was a delicious torture, and made him want to cup his genitals under the table, rub himself through his sweats, squeeze gently. Answer the maddening itch of interest, feel his cock filling and rising in the stretching fabric, nudging back against his palm. Feel the moisture gathering at the tip of his cock, run his fingers over the swelling tip through the soft cotton, making the material wet and-

He swallowed hard. His palms itched madly and he had to fight to keep his hands at his sides. His fingers clenched on the remote control. He knew his sweats were tenting again, and he tried to think snow. The television screen flashing in front of him had all kinds of snowy, frigid details. If he'd been watching it, rather than ogling Walter Skinner's muscular thighs straining at faded denim, maybe he'd have some success calming his dick down.

As it was, the itch was just getting worse.

Alex's eyes stayed glued to Walter as he straightened, muscles flexing. His mind caught in a persistent loop, replaying Walter in the kitchen earlier, backing him against the counter, teasing him with kisses, touching freely. Those hands on his ass, rough and demanding, as if they knew exactly how much that proprietary touch affected him. As if Walter could read how much Alex had always longed to offer that ass to him... over his desk, over the railing of that fucking balcony, over whatever flat surface or chair back happened to be closest.

Christ, if Will hadn't walked in, he'd have been bending over the kitchen counter in another five minutes. The thought made his cheeks burn with a heat to match the slow fire in his pulsing balls. Just remembering the way he'd been rubbing up against Walter, practically climbing the man, made it worse. If he'd thought any of the old interest had finally cooled off, thirty seconds in the kitchen had cured that illusion.

He'd forgotten how frustrating the low hum of arousal could be. He'd sublimated it every way he knew how back in the day, and had been largely untroubled by it following the parking garage incident, the subsequent efforts against the aliens, and the last couple years. Now here he was with the two of them in his house, openly vying for his attention. Over two years of comfortable asexuality blown to sharp, jagged, aching little pieces.

And that damn slap on the ass as Walter had exited the kitchen. The high-handed attitude continued to piss him off - in no small part because it played so perfectly into his worst sexual fantasies about the man - but the smack on the ass had short-circuited his thought processes and effectively quelled any cutting response. He couldn't believe Walter had done that... and right in front of Mulder!

But apparently, Walter wanted to make his intentions crystal clear. He certainly wasn't hiding the fact that he'd prefer Mulder just step aside and get out of the way so he could make his moves uninterrupted. Of course, as usual, Mulder wasn't cooperating.

Alex had a strong inkling his quiet, peaceful life was about to get complicated.

Suited up in his coat and ball cap, Walter turned back to the room instead of continuing out the door. Alex froze, caught staring. Walter smiled broadly, sending a significant glance in the direction of Alex's crotch. "Anything... interesting on the weather, Alex?"

Refusing to be flustered one more time, Alex tilted his chin and ignored the innuendo. "Looks like the storm is expected to stick around most of the day now. It's sort of... stuck. I haven't gotten the local update on the roads yet."

"Well, check it out, but then get some rest. Settle in with some tea or something." On that note, he spun and headed outside, tugging on his gloves.

Alex stood staring at the closed door, wondering if following Skinner outside and knocking him flat on his spectacular ass in the closest snow drift would knock the dictatorial impulses out of him. Somehow he doubted it, but that didn't quell his urge to do just that. Of course, given the interchanges over breakfast, he wouldn't be surprised if Mulder took care of the dumping-into-the-snow-bank for him.

He couldn't quite figure out how to feel about the rising tension between the two men. Getting some sleep apparently hadn't dissuaded either from the idea of investigating their supposed lingering 'interest' in him. Part of him still wanted to tell both of them to go to hell, and get out of his house. They could ski down Route 9 for all he cared. He didn't need their suddenly discovered 'feelings' complicating his life. He'd dealt with it all, put it behind him. So there was some sexual sizzle left over. Big deal. Hardly surprising. He'd deal with that like he'd dealt with everything else.

But another part of him remembered being in their arms last night, overwhelmed with feelings that were anything but dealt with, fighting to hold himself together in the face of their sorrow and regret.

And still another part of him just couldn't resist... somewhere in the back of his mind he was positively reveling in it. Rolling around in the abundant testosterone like a cat in heat. And why wouldn't he be? After years of fighting his own attraction, after years of taking their scorn and disgust and insults and fists, here he was with both of them pawing the ground and eyeing each other as the competition.

Which was just... damn weird, when you came right down to it. They'd always been this united front against him. Well, except for when Mulder was going through one of his many I-don't-trust-Skinner phases. Or when he'd managed to get Skinner lying to Mulder with the nanocyte threat. And there was that time with the big black bug and the five point restraints...

Okay, so maybe not exactly a united front. But they were on the same side. Usually.

None of which was the point. The point being, this was damn awkward. Having them both in the house, both making overtures. Christ, one would have been confusing enough, but both? And if they kept it up... what the hell was he supposed to do?

He looked down at himself ruefully. Not responding was looking less like an option than it had last night.

To say he'd given Walter a positive reaction was something of an understatement. Knowing Skinner, it was a safe bet he wouldn't be backing off anytime soon. Alex had done everything but hang a welcome sign on his ass.

And he knew himself well enough to know Mulder could expect a similar welcome, if he forced the issue.

Or if he so much as, say, crooked a finger in Alex's direction.

Alex groaned and rubbed his forehead. He had a headache already. So... what? He was supposed to choose? What were they going to expect of him?

And what happened when they got him into bed. Or more accurately, afterward. What happened when the lust was quenched and this turned out to be the delusions of a guilty mind that Alex still half-believed it might be?

He got screwed, that's what. In more ways than one.

But did that mean he should just walk away from the table altogether? Not even give it a try? What if they weren't deluded? Maybe losing him to death really had made them think about lost chances and missed opportunity. They'd had the benefit now of seeing all the Consortium files, reading through all he'd done with enough information to deduce why he'd done it. At least as much as the files recorded. All his moves against the Consortium, back as far as the Duane Barry debacle, were in there. The organization had always been a little too good at documenting his various betrayals and missteps, constantly calculating his threat level, all of which should have only served to improve his standing with Mulder and Walter.

Hell, the Consortium documentation of the nanocyte operations alone should have given them enough reading material to alter their view of him at least a little. Those files were full of side notes and dire warnings from Consortium personnel that "Krycek was a loose cannon" undermining their grip on Skinner, compromising their interests, subverting the goals of the nanocyte project. Every time Walter was supposed to die was marked right there in black and white, and his continued existence always linked back to "Krycek interference".

So it was possible. Possible they weren't delusional. Possible they really could forgive, if not forget. Or try to understand, at least. He shouldn't just scrap the whole thing out of hand without giving them any kind of a chance, should he? Shouldn't force himself to close down and just boot them out the door, out of his life.

Besides, he'd already admitted to himself how successful that strategy was likely to be.

"I'm sorry to hear southern California is getting hit with major rain, but I don't think that's going to exactly help us figure out the local conditions."

Alex jumped and yelped, the voice just over his right shoulder startling the hell out of him. He clapped a hand to his chest as if that could still the pounding of his heart. "Christ, Mulder! Don't do that!"

Mulder grinned and put a steadying hand on Alex's shoulder from behind. "Easy there." He nodded to the TV. "Waiting for the local update?"

Finally paying attention to the screen, Alex noticed the coverage had indeed moved from the northeast to California, where there was already an alert out for mudslides. "Yes," he answered shortly. "I think I'll switch over to the radio, this is taking too long." He clicked the TV off and turned, but Mulder stayed right where he was, still smiling. Alex felt his heart kick up a notch and took a step backwards in spite of himself. What is this, déjà vu? Haven't we gone through this once already this morning? Thankfully, Mulder didn't follow. "What?" he demanded of Mulder's amused look.

"Nothing. I've just been thinking all morning that you're cute when you're flustered."

Willing himself not to blush, Alex dipped his head and rifled his hair before he could stop himself. "Dammit, what am I supposed to say to remarks like that?"

"Oh, I don't know, something like 'and you're cute when you're teasing, Mulder', would be welcome."

Startled by the note of uncertainty he heard underneath the joke, he looked up. The endearing, tentative expression on Mulder's face had him responding without thinking. "Mulder, how in hell you manage to doubt your own attractiveness ought to be an X-File on its own." The delight that suddenly lit up Mulder's eyes took that attractiveness right into the stratosphere, and Alex felt his insides melt. Yes. Yes, we did indeed already go through this once today.

"Thanks, Alex. That... well, it means a lot coming from you." Mulder's mouth tightened in a grimace. "Given our past, I wouldn't be surprised if I was the last thing you'd find attractive."

"I didn't exactly let you knock me around for my health," Alex muttered. The glow dimmed and guilt slid into Mulder's expression with the ease of an old friend. Alex winced. He really needed to stop speaking without previewing his thoughts. "Look, I'm sorry. I didn't actually mean it that way. I just... I'm hardly the innocent victim in our history. You don't need to get all penitent just because I refer to... all that. I'm not trying to guilt trip you or get apologies or anything. It's just... it is what it is. It's who we are. Who we were, at least." Alex shrugged. He couldn't quite say what he meant, couldn't find the words he wanted. He noticed he was tapping the remote against the knuckles of his other hand, and forced his hands to still. He hated broadcasting his anxiety.

"I wondered," Mulder murmured.

"What?"

"Why," Mulder said simply, shrugging. "Why you didn't... fight back. Hit back."

Alex looked away, uncomfortable. And how about why I was always trembling and couldn't hardly breathe right whenever you touched me, no matter if it was just fists. "Yeah. Well. Now you know. You can trust me on this one, Mulder. You never have to second-guess your sex appeal."

Mulder tilted his head, the shy glow returning. "It's come to my attention that I could have trusted you on a lot of things."

"I wouldn't go that far. I'm a devious bastard and I always have been. I don't recommend trusting people like me."

"People like you, eh? Well, you know how I am. Always going against the flow of popular opinion."

"I hear that can get you into trouble."

"Yeah, but it's usually trouble that's worth getting into."

A persistent smile worked its way onto Alex's lips despite his best efforts. He looked up at Mulder through his lashes. "You don't say."

Mulder's voice dropped an octave and he took a small step closer. "Oh, but I do."

"Outside?" piped a small voice behind them, and they both jumped.

"Christ, you ought to bell that kid," Alex muttered as Mulder turned and knelt in front of Will.

"You wanna go outside?"

"Snow!"

"Yeah, tell me about it. Lots and lots of snow. Maybe the puppy would like to go out too?"

Watching Mulder with Will just made Alex melt more. He was disgusted with his own predictability, in finding anything remotely impressive about seeing a man with a child. That sort of idiocy was for other people. Not him. But Mulder and Will just seemed so... in tune. The easy affection between them made Alex's chest hurt. He hated the entirely too human reaction, hated the way it resonated deep down to old, old wounds, from a childhood spent out of tune with everyone and everything, hated the way it made him long for a similar tenderness. But hating it all didn't ease the ache.

He was so distracted by the sight of Mulder laughing and playing with Will while getting him into his boots and coat, that it wasn't until the door closed behind Will and Sheldon that Alex suddenly realized he was now alone in the house with Mulder.

And the look in those cagey hazel eyes said it wasn't an accident.

pov change

Walter looked up as the front door opened and closed, and Will came barreling down off the front steps into the drifts, laughing with delight. The puppy bounded after him, or tried to... all big paws and short legs, it ended up wallowing in the snow. When no Mulder followed, Walter had a momentary urge to return inside.

He battled it back. The shoveling needed to be done and he didn't want Alex doing it. If he went inside he'd have to take Will in with him and the kid would be crushed, having just gotten out here. And most of all, returning inside now would be far too obvious.

No, he just needed to trust in Alex's reactions. He knew he'd gotten a foot firmly in the door, and had been wedging the crack wider ever since. Of course that didn't mean he had to like giving Mulder a chance to catch up, but he'd look damn stupid if he went chasing back inside like an insecure teenager.

Will stumbled up to him and bounced up and down on his little booted feet. "Snow!"

"Yes sir."

"Lots!"

"A little too much actually."

Will looked directly up into the falling flakes, blinking rapidly, then focused on Walter again. "Help?"

"Aw, thanks. I can do it, though. Why don't you make a snowman? Right over there." Getting the boy far enough out of his way that he didn't need to worry about accidentally burying him under a badly aimed shovelful of snow, Walter went back to the rhythmic task of digging out around the SUV. The snow continued falling, though slower than the previous afternoon. Despite the work it was causing, he couldn't help but appreciate the beauty, the stillness, the snowstorm created.

He finished moving the snow out away from the car a good foot all the way around, then started down the driveway. He tried to just enjoy the unusual experience - when was the last time he'd shoveled? - not think about the house and what might or might not be taking place. He wouldn't go running. Wouldn't give the impulse free rein. Wouldn't look like a fool.

Wouldn't slam in and grab Mulder by the hair and pull him forcibly away from his Alex...

Whoa. Less than 24 hours ago, he'd been convinced the man was dead. Now it was "his" Alex? Jumping the gun a bit, aren't we, Walt? But there had always been something about Alex. Something that tugged the possessiveness out of Walter. Made him want to stake his claim and flag it clearly for everyone to see. So they'd back the fuck off.

Even when he'd been at his most furious, most upset with Alex, he'd wanted the boy under his control. Now that the anger had been dealt with, he could focus on the root of that possessive urge. The desire to take Alex for his own, to keep and protect, to save Alex from himself, from the boy's own worst impulses, from his awful decisions and the actions he felt compelled to take, even as they left gaping wounds in his own self.

I wouldn't have been so angry, Alex, if I hadn't been so damn disappointed.

He reached the end of the driveway in his first pass from SUV to road, and paused to lean against the shovel, look up and down the quiet dirt road. Nothing moved in the steady snowfall. No birds, no small animals, nothing. Dense quiet wrapped around him, and apart from the shuffling sounds of Will and Sheldon, and the occasional giggle from the little boy, he could have been completely alone. He was surprised at how much he liked the idea, liked the feeling.

Maybe it wasn't just the job getting to him. Maybe he'd been in DC too long all the way around.

True to Alex's prediction, the road wasn't plowed. No cars had been by. Even if snow wasn't hampering the visibility, he'd have been unable to see another home, even standing in the road. He tried to remember from the drive in how far the closest house was. Even without clear recollection... it was far enough. More than far enough. He realized he was smiling and blinked in surprise.

Space. Quiet. Fewer cars. Fewer people. Less... motion.

He supposed telling Alex he was thinking about moving to Vermont could be definitely perceived as jumping the gun. It might be too much too soon, might scare Alex off. Or maybe it was just the thing he needed to say, to demonstrate he was serious about this.

Christ. Was he that serious about this? Showing an interest in Alex was one thing. Pursuing him, grabbing hold of this bizarre second chance, seeing where that untried road led... that was all well and good. But what exactly was he talking about? Quitting? Retiring? Moving north?

Something deep in his gut screamed "yes". The answer was so swift, and so emphatic, he couldn't doubt the certainty, though his logic and practicality dictated he should. It was as if the second chance with Alex represented the perfect opportunity... the time to take control of his life and live the way he wanted to, for a change. Taking down the aliens, the Consortium, had certainly been satisfying. But it would never have been something to which he would have chosen to dedicate so much of his life. It had to be done, he was in a position to do something, so he did it.

And ever since then? He sighed, adjusting his hat brim. If he was honest with himself, since then he'd been coasting. The fallout was long since cleaned up. The agency was long since cleaned up. Someone else could monitor it for a while. His job bored him, when it didn't irritate the hell out of him. It had ever since things had ostensibly returned to "normal" after all the clandestine work they'd done fighting the aliens. As for his free time... well, likely he spent far too much of that with John and Dana. Not that they seemed to mind. They both appeared to enjoy his company, and appreciated his time with and devotion to Will.

What else? What else, indeed. Since he'd seen Alex in that barn of a dining hall, his life back in DC looked greyer by the minute. All color leeched out, flat and uninteresting. A new adventure could be just what he needed. If it didn't work out with Alex? Then he could go from here to wherever he decided he wanted to go next. Could do whatever he thought he might enjoy. He could take up pottery if he wanted to.

He realized, standing there in Alex Krycek's front yard watching the snow fall, that Alex was just giving him a very good reason to do what he'd been subconsciously wanting for some time. Make a change. Take a new direction. Move on.

Do something for himself.

He smiled into the snow again. Now if he could just convince Alex, and ensure he didn't go running screaming in the other direction.

pov change

Mulder hid a smile at the trapped look on Alex's face. Now was the time to use his vaunted intelligence. Skinner might be good at the forthright, full-speed-ahead approach, but he could out-think and out-strategize Skinner any day. Something told him Alex was more than a little overwhelmed, and could use a gentler hand. He was probably lucky Alex had fallen asleep so quickly last night, and saved him from pushing too hard too fast.

"Okay, now that Will's out from under foot for a few minutes, I really ought to see to my commitments. My cell wasn't getting much for reception yesterday. Can I use your telephone and reimburse you?"

Some of the tension in Alex's face relaxed. "Oh sure. Of course. Don't worry about it. Here, use this." He walked to table in front of the couch and snagged a small cell phone, tossing it to Mulder.

"But... the reception..."

Alex's face split in a grin. "My phone doesn't have reception issues. Ever."

Mulder raised an eyebrow and opened the phone. Sure enough, five full bars stared back at him. "Now how-"

"I have friends in high places,"Alex murmured, pointing at the ceiling. "It's been modified with some... advanced technology."

Mulder blinked, catching on immediately. "Do you still-" He trailed off, not sure how to continue. Consort with aliens? Deal for the safety of humankind? Run around translating all sorts of extraterrestrial information and slipping it to rogue FBI agents? Obviously, Alex was done with that. He supposed consort with aliens was the closest way of phrasing it. Before he could decide, Alex was answering him.

"Not often. But they like to be able to reach me when they want to." He shrugged. "Gets Jeremiah off my back, and makes it a little more likely that he'll actually call before stopping by."

"Jeremiah Smith."

"Well, I'm not talking about the bullfrog."

Mulder grinned at the exasperated tone. "Thanks, Alex. I'll reimburse you for any costs."

Alex waved a hand. "Don't worry about it. My costs are very... managed."

Mulder's eyebrows flew up again. "Oh really? They can do that, too? How?"

"I find I worry less when I just don't ask for too many details," Alex said dryly.

"Huh." Mulder studied the phone for a few moments, but nothing looked out of the ordinary. "Well, guess I better get calling." He lifted the phone in a salute, then went to the couch he'd slept on and opened up his laptop. He didn't miss the look of relief crossing Alex's face.

He started calling and canceling and rearranging, and watched out of the corner of his eye as Alex floated in and out of the room, moving from his computer to the woodstove to the kitchen and back again. He didn't disappear to shower, so the sexy sweatpants remained, which made Mulder quite happy. Finally Alex left the computer and settled back in the chair he'd slept in, with a large mug of something hot. Sipping slowly, he closed his eyes and spent a number of minutes just breathing in steam. Watching him, Mulder almost lost track of his conversation but saved himself just in time.

Twenty minutes later all speaking engagements were cancelled, and longer conversations scheduled to investigate rebooking, or arranging for different kinds of visits while he was in the area. He rang off the phone the final time, and set it back on the table. "Done."

Alex's eyes opened. His voice was lazy when he asked, "Any problems?"

"No, actually they were half expecting it. They knew I was coming into Vermont first."

"Mm." Alex nodded, blinking sleepily. "New Englanders are good about that. The ones that have been around here a long time understand. Rather just let the weather do its thing and slow down their plans. A lot less hazardous than pushing forward with everything no matter what."

"I like that approach. The urban environments could take a lesson from that."

Alex nodded, smiling. "Gotta agree with you there. I always thought the Russians had it right. They do the same thing. The weather kicks up, things stop. I think it's more civilized."

Enjoying the drowsy tone to Alex's voice, Mulder relaxed back into the corner of the couch. "How are you feeling?"

"Okay." Alex sighed and sipped again. "Not much energy, but better than I've felt in over a week."

"This has really hit hard, eh?"

"I've been sick before, but this is just nuts. I really am fine, but after last night I think people are right that I may have tried to go back too soon. Better to just rest a few more days. Which is incredibly irritating."

Mulder laughed. "I hear that. I hate being sick. Or laid up. Boring. Scully says I'm worse than a kid."

"I hear men always are," Alex murmured. "I think it's in our job description."

"Can I get you anything? Tea? More of whatever you're drinking? Aspirin?" The surprise in Alex's reaction made Mulder want to laugh, then gave him a flash of guilt and sadness. Why would Alex expect him to be solicitous?

"No no, that's okay, I can get it."

"Well, I was going to ask if I could make more coffee anyway, so I'm happy to."

Alex tilted his head to one side, his eyes searching Mulder's. Mulder kept his face bland and pleasant, and Alex relaxed. "Okay. More tea."

Mulder got up, took the mug, and headed for the kitchen. He knew he was on a limited time frame. Will would be coming in soon and Skinner would doubtless follow him. But mostly he just needed to communicate to Alex that his interest was sincere, while simultaneously not pushing him. He could do this. Relationships... not his specialty. But he could manage this. He would manage this.

He got the coffee going and boiled the water, then wandered back out into the living room. Alex rested his head on the chair back, staring out the window. He looked... distant. His face remote, his mind obviously ticking away. He also looked tired, Mulder noted, and felt a rush of warm concern. Standing still, he relaxed his walls and reached out gently, just questing around the edges of Alex's emotional state.

He got an immediate wave of static, almost a buzz that reminded him strongly of his various interactions over the years with large numbers of bees in enclosed spaces. It took him a minute but with a deeper relaxation he was able to sort the signal to noise ratio and realize this was Alex's brain on full engagement. The sheer speed and hyperawareness of the thoughts made for the initial blur.

Once he reached his own zone of awareness, he could see it all like electric impulses firing in different colors. He could pick a single thought thread and follow it, or just absorb the gestalt... his own hyped up brain activity wouldn't have any difficulty slipping into the stream of consciousness and comprehending. But he wasn't actually interested in reading Alex's thoughts. It was invasive even at the best of times, and he knew Alex wasn't the kind of person to thank him for any invasion of privacy. His interest lay more in the general feel of the emotions surrounding the thoughts.

Confusion came first, followed by a deep pleasure, almost a purring. Alex might be a bit thrown by the circumstances and unsure how to proceed, but he'd reached a point of getting past the initial shock and kneejerk rejection, to reach enjoyment. That was the main piece Mulder had been after, and once confirmed, he started to withdraw. He'd already partially disengaged when subtle strands of pulsating desire lashed out like striking snakes, wrapping around him and calling to his blood. He felt an answering heat rise in himself, and grinned. Whatever Alex was thinking, it was not only making him happy, it was getting him hot, too.

All the better.

On the tail of the thought, Alex's head turned suddenly and his thoughts receded as if pulled back in behind a closing door. "What?" he demanded again, making Mulder laugh.

"Nothing. Stop being so suspicious."

"Well, you keep looking at me and smiling. That's never been good in my experience."

"Get ready for a new experience then," Mulder retorted, drawing closer. "You just looked... lost in thought. It was nice. It made me smile." He shrugged and dared, "Specifically, you looked lost in pleasant thought." The spots of color flooding Alex's cheeks didn't surprise him. "It's not a look I've had much opportunity to see on you. Oh, and there's the water." At the whistle, Mulder went back to the kitchen and filled both their mugs. Doctoring his coffee with sugar, he stepped back to the door and poked his head through. "Anything in your tea?"

"No."

Mulder pushed the rest of the way out the door and carried the mugs to Alex. Handing Alex's to him, he sat down on the floor by Alex's chair under the pretext of getting closer to the woodstove. "That get to be a pain in the ass?" He jerked his head at the stove as he blew on his coffee.

"Not too bad. I'm used to it now. In the beginning it was." Alex was looking at Mulder oddly, but didn't say anything about his choice of seats.

"Now see, that'd probably be perfect for someone like me. I don't sleep enough to make it a problem." Mulder sipped and set his mug down. "So, you seem settled in pretty well. You like it here?"

Alex thought for a minute, then nodded. "Yeah, I do. I like the school, and I like the area."

Mulder nodded. "It seems like a great school."

"It's fun." Alex smiled and ducked his head. "I know that sounds weird but... it is."

"Doesn't sound weird. And I know from weird," Mulder cracked. "No, actually it sounds damn impressive that you can say your job is fun." He sighed and stared at the chink at the edge of the door to the woodstove, where the orange glow of the fire could be seen. Granted, he was angling for the question he assumed Alex would ask next, but even as he played out the gambit, he could feel the heaviness generated by thoughts of his own current dissatisfaction with work.

"Aren't you still on the X Files? Last I heard you were. You're not enjoying it anymore? I'd think it'd be more enjoyable these days. More credibility, no Consortium fucking with you. Everyone listening to you about aliens."

Mulder pulled his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them, a sardonic half smile tilting his lips. "The X Files themselves are still fine. I enjoy them, and I enjoy investigating, and the aliens are great. I love the speaking tours. Of course, the speaking tours are completely distinct from the FBI. That's my own gig. The FBI puts up with it because they don't want me to leave. The fact that I'm still working there gives them credibility." Mulder laughed, a harsh sound even to his own ears. "How about that... me lending them credibility." He sighed again.

"But?"

"But... my job isn't about investigating X Files much anymore. I've got a team now. I'm a supervisor. I assign other people to investigate the really fun stuff. And I deal with the bureaucratic bullshit. The budgets and the making sure I've got people where they need to be and that they're doing what they're supposed to be doing and making nice with the people they need to make nice with and... and dammit, they don't always do things the way I would. You know?" Alex laughed, and Mulder felt a thrill work its way down his spine and set his tailbone tingling. Alex's laugh - his real laugh - was throaty and damn sexy.

"Yeah, actually I do know. And knowing you, I can understand." Alex grinned.

"Is that a dig?" Mulder asked mildly, pretending affront.

"Oh no. Never."

"Alright then. So, you love your job, you like the area. Even the snow? Even the snow. What else? Are you making friends here? Are you happy? Seeing anyone?" The questions rolled out easily, tripping one after the other and all in a perfectly casual tone.

Alex was opening his mouth to respond when Mulder's last question registered and he choked on his words. "I- ah. Yes. No. I mean... no. I'm not. I mean, I'm happy. I... friends... well... I'm not really the friends type. I like the students, and the other teachers. I don't really hang out with people though. It's not my thing. And... uh... no. I'm... not."

"Not seeing anyone?" Mulder pressed carefully.

Alex shook his head mutely, very interested in his tea. Finally he said, "It's not a priority for me."

Mulder nodded. "I get that. It's never been much of a priority for me, either. I was glad when John and Dana got together. I always thought it should be a priority for her. Maybe that sounds sexist, but I don't mean it that way. It's not a man/woman thing. It's not that I think men don't prioritize it and women do, although sometimes it seems that way. It's just... I always thought she deserved that kind of happiness in her life. The kind of happiness John gives her. I always thought she'd make someone a wonderful partner. Life partner. Me?" He grinned and extended his foot to nudge Alex's. "Me, not so much."

Alex flashed him a nervous smile in response then hid behind his mug again.

"Not that I haven't thought about it. I have, it's just never been that important. Or other things have always been more important. You know what I mean." He made it a statement, not a question, somehow knowing Alex did know exactly what he meant. Alex's nod confirmed. "I also just don't really do the relationship thing. I think, if I ever could do it, it would have to be someone... well, someone who really understands that. Maybe someone who is similar. Who knows what it's like to have it be a lower priority in life than most people make it. Who knows how that makes me... us... difficult in a relationship-setting. For lack of a better word.

"Maybe that sounds strange... putting two non-relationship people together in a relationship, but it makes sense to me. I think I'd need someone who could really get that perspective. Who wouldn't get offended by it. Who could function independently and remember that this isn't something I'm used to, or good at. I think... well, I think someone like that would be more willing to... learn along with me. We could make it up as we went along, and figure out what works for us, instead of trying to fit ourselves into the 'relationship model' the rest of the world operates on. Look at John and Dana. They fit that model. They both want the same things, and they both come out of a mindset of understanding that model, and moving toward it instead of rejecting it. Me, I think I need someone who's spent as long a time as I have rejecting it." Mulder stopped to draw a breath and take a drink, searching Alex's face during the pause. Alex had gone very still, his eyes fixed on his mug, his hands tightening around it. Mulder pressed on, suddenly feeling the time pressure.

"I think I'd also need someone who knows how... fucked up I am. Maybe someone who feels equally fucked up. Again, sounds like a bad idea, but I think it makes sense. I think you've got a basic level of understanding there that you don't necessarily have with other people. Because, you know, people with strange histories know how their history affects them, so it makes sense that they would also get how my history would affect me.

"You know what I mean?"

Silence held for long moments and Mulder began to feel foolish. He'd sounded like a complete ass. And an inarticulate complete ass at that. He should have thought it out better. For an intelligent, well-spoken man, he'd sounded repetitious and babbly and he'd been going for subtle and he couldn't have been more obvious and-

-and Alex was nodding.

Mulder held his breath.

Finally Alex cleared his throat and darted his eyes up to Mulder's then back to his mug. "Yeah." His voice came husky and low. "Yeah, I know what you mean. I think." He cleared his throat again and drank deeply from his tea. "Whenever I've thought about it, which isn't often or anything, but whenever I have, I've just known... I could never date a normie. How the hell... I mean... I'd rather just not. Not even go there. Like we said, not that important." He paused, and blinked. "Not that I could even imagine anyone it could be, but I always figured if I did try it, it would have to be someone with some history... some history with the stuff I've done, seen." He snorted suddenly. "Which doesn't leave a very long list of possibilities. Especially considering you'd also want to be attracted to them, and preferably be the same species."

Mulder burst out laughing. "Jeremiah?"

Alex grinned, finally meeting his eyes. "It occurred to me. In passing. Like I said... overall? It's been a low priority." He shrugged. "It's sure as hell not like I'm laying awake nights thinking about how I'm all alone in life. I'm enjoying my solitude." Mostly.

Mulder nodded. "I can imagine. And now, to cap off my complete failure at anything like subtlety, I will come right out and say that yes, I've been leading around to what it sounds like I've been leading around to. You're not seeing anyone. You... well, you qualify as someone who understands what I've been through, who understands priorities, as we see them. And you definitely meet the 'equally fucked up' requirement," he added innocently. Alex tipped back his head and laughed that throaty laugh again, and Mulder shivered, then continued before Alex could say anything. "We've got a history. Not a particularly impressive one, in a lot of ways, but one that sure is fraught with passion and intensity. We have a commonality of experience and understanding that few other people could match." He drew a deep breath and pushed on.

"More important, you're not only the same species, but I'm very... very... attracted to you. Always have been, even when I hated you. It's the old chestnut about 'the opposite of love isn't hate... it's indifference.' I've never been indifferent to you, Alex, and I can't imagine ever being indifferent. So I guess what I'm getting to is, since you're not seeing anyone, and it sounds like you have similar requirements to me, and maybe I fit some of your requirements like you fit all of mine... would you be interested in, possibly, seeing me? And we could both try to figure this out together?"

Once again a hush fell and the sound of Alex's fingers drumming on the side of his mug seemed suddenly loud. A piece of wood cracked and popped in the fire and they both jumped. Mulder wondered how long he should let it sit before he said something else, before he offered Alex an out. Attraction didn't equal a willingness to let things get complicated. Maybe Skinner had offered Alex simple, straightforward sex. Maybe he should have offered Alex simple, straightforward sex! Dammit!

But that wasn't what he wanted. Or rather, wasn't all he wanted. He meant everything he'd just said and-

Alex licked his lips and Mulder sucked in a breath. Alex cleared his throat. "Well, I think I'd like that... if you're absolutely positive that you do, now, consider me to be the same species?" He met Mulder's eyes with a small smile.

Mulder let the tension shatter in a burst of laughter. "I'm sorry, Alex. You are a vertebrate. I know this for a fact and I never should have implied otherwise."

"Damn right," Alex muttered. "Although I have to say, it's one of the more creative names that's been thrown at me over the years. But... well, seriously Mulder, you're... you want to... date me?" Alex's voice cracked on 'date' and he flushed.

Mulder nodded enthusiastically. "Yes. Yes, I do. I want to date you, and I want to see if we can swing this whole... interpersonal relationship thing that everyone else goes on and on about and seems to be so impressed with. No guarantees, no pressure. No storybook romance expected or implied. No swelling music. Fair warning, I've got a bad track record. Just us, giving it a try. Because you know, I think we both deserve that. After all this time, and everything we've gone through. Finding you, alive and well, after all my second thoughts and regrets over these last years... damn. I want to try, Alex."

"I... can't believe I'm hearing this. Twenty four hours ago I didn't even want to read a newspaper article about you. Saw your name in the headline and I threw it in the fire."

"Yeah, but that's when you thought I stood around with my thumb up my ass while Skinner shot you over and over. I never would have done that, Alex. Never would have just stood there. I'm so sorry that you've been believing that for so long. I know it's got to be a hell of a shift, and a lot to take in." Mulder reached out and rested a hand on Alex's knee, squeezed lightly. "That's why I say no pressure. Just us, giving it a try... where giving it a try means spending some time together, talking, figuring out all that explosive chemistry without the Consortium in the way, seeing what we have in common and what we don't. So... how about it? Will you date me? Give me a chance and see what happens? Now that I've acknowledged you're the same species and all?"

This time the silence was full of the sight of Alex nodding, his eyes sparkling, his smile blinding. Mulder felt exhilaration chase all the tension from him, and his hand on Alex's knee tightened and moved upward, rubbing Alex's thigh. "Thank you."

"I... thank you," Alex countered. "I still think this is four kinds of bizarre, but-"

"But hey, it's me. You've got to expect bizarre."

"There is that." Suddenly Alex's face grew serious. "But Mulder, we do have to talk. This is a little complicated, and I don't know... well..." He paused, then restarted. "I am interested. You have to know that. You've seen the files, you've seen some of what I was doing and how it changed over time, and there's a lot right there between the lines that you're too damn smart not to have picked up on. And I know you've read every single one of the files, and then some, besides going on a stroll through my brain. I'm not going to try to deny that you're a big part of why what I was doing did change, and that hearing you say this is... well, not something I ever expected. But there's more than just us deciding we want to explore this. Walter-"

Even as he spoke the word, heavy footsteps landed on the porch outside, and the door swung open. Mulder clenched his jaw but kept his hand firmly on Alex's thigh. He didn't rise from the floor, only glancing back over his shoulder as Will and Sheldon tumbled through the door with Skinner right on their heels.

Will started toward him but Skinner stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. "Boots! Boots! Let's not get snow all over." Will immediately kicked off his boots, set something on the floor and tore out of his jacket, while Skinner checked out the room.

Mulder felt the sharp gaze land accusingly on his hand on Alex's leg, and he resisted the childish urge to curl it possessively around Alex's inner thigh. Not pushing. No pressure. He'd gotten what he wanted. He did give in to the smug smile itching at his lips. He felt he deserved that, after Skinner's self-satisfied attitude in the kitchen earlier.

Skinner shrugged out of his coat more slowly, while Will picked something up off the floor and ran to Mulder full-tilt. "Da! SNOWMAN!" He held out a packed ball of snow with a smaller ball fused to the top, and an even smaller ball on top of that... lopsided, but definitely a snowman.

Mulder grinned. "Excellent! You make that?"

Will nodded, the picture of pride. "Mine!"

"Well, yes, but it should probably go back outside, or it won't be yours for long." Mulder sent a mental image of warmth and snow, and how the two interacted, and Will's face fell. "Sorry buddy, that's the way snow works."

Will's mouth twisted in a sad expression as he stared at his little man, already noticing the way it was dripping. "Snowman," he murmured sadly.

"If you put him on the porch, he'll stay," Mulder offered, putting an arm around Will's back. "At least for a little while."

"Or," Alex spoke up suddenly, "you can stick him in the freezer and then you can visit him whenever you want just by popping into the kitchen."

Will looked up with big eyes, and nodded excitedly. "Freezer!"

Mulder laughed, and levered himself up, using his hand on Alex's leg for support. "Thanks," he murmured, then scooped up Will and headed for the kitchen. "Let's go get Snowman all safe and sound. Did you have fun out there?" At Will's enthusiastic nodding, he grinned. "Good." He walked by Skinner and transferred the sunny smile to him. "Shoveling all done?"

"Yes, thanks so much for the help," Skinner drawled sarcastically.

"Well, I had to be on top of all those cancellations," Mulder tossed off as he entered the kitchen. "You know, being responsible and all. I knew you'd understand."

He snickered all the way to the refrigerator at the look on Skinner's face.

pov change

Alex shifted uncomfortably in the chair. Sheldon flopped at his feet, panting happily. Walter had his coat and hat off and was taking his time removing his boots. The blistering glare he'd given Mulder had reflected heat all the way across the room. Alex felt his muscles tightening up again, reading the anger coming off Walter in waves. Angry was one emotion he was very familiar with in its Walter Skinner incarnation. In fact, he'd seen enough angry Skinner to last a lifetime. Guilt crawled up the inside of his rib cage and made his throat feel tight. He wanted out of the room. Out of the house. This was such a fucking mess and he shouldn't have-

He caught the thought before it could even finish and was immediately irritated at himself for thinking it.

No way around it, this situation was just too damn weird.

Hell, they were coming on to him, he should not be the one feeling responsible for the brewing conflict, or coming up with a litany of 'shoulds' or 'shouldn'ts' for himself. He should not be the one wanting to disappear. But after this morning in the kitchen, he felt guilty having Walter walk in to see Mulder's hand on his leg. And he'd only been trying to flag that exact problem for Mulder, but that would just sound like a convenient excuse... and dammit, why should he be explaining himself, or even wanting to explain himself, to Walter anyway?! To either of them?

If you give them both the go-ahead message, you become at least partially responsible, his internal voice muttered.

It was enough to make him wish for the bad old days when his conscience had been even more dysfunctional.

"Thanks for shoveling."

"Don't mention it." Walter walked over to the chair opposite Alex's. "Any news on the roads?"

"Oh, yes." Alex leapt for the neutral topic, thankful that Walter's voice stayed even, then getting annoyed with himself for his own relief. It wasn't his problem if Walter was pissed off. Not this time. "They expect to open Route 9 back up by noon, but they'd like any non-essential traffic to stay off it. All the county roads are snow covered and slippery, including the highways. Basically if you don't have to go out, they're recommending you don't. In fact they're asking you not to. The storm itself is expected to taper off by this evening, possibly lasting to around midnight."

Walter nodded. "Fair enough. Although I realize this puts you in an awkward position. You were right, by the way. South Road hasn't been touched yet."

Alex put his mug to one side and shrugged, not expecting the solicitous tone and concerned expression. "I figured. And... well, I can't exactly kick you guys out into this snow, can I?" He smiled to show he was joking, although the urge to force them both out the door was still strong. Surely they could make it out to Route 9 and see if the Colonel Williams Inn had any vacancy. Although chances were high everything would be full with stranded travelers.

"I'm sorry, Alex. I don't like imposing, particularly with it being all three of us, and you so short on space. Especially with all of this being so unexpected, and such a shock all the way around. That last thing you need is us right here underfoot. Tonight I insist you take your room and the bed back; that will at least give you some space. If it does clear off by tonight, we should only be here one more night and we can find something tomorrow. Maybe you can get me a list and I can start calling around today. Particularly since apparently Mulder isn't going to cooperate and is going to just call off all his engagements and stick around." He shot an irritated look toward the kitchen.

Alex shifted position again, avoiding Walter's eyes. "With the roads, it was probably a good idea," he temporized, trying to stamp down the edge of guilt. "There have been accidents everywhere."

"I'd still rather have you to myself," Walter stated baldly. He gave Alex an evil grin when Alex's eyes finally lit on his, startled. "Frankly, if it was just me, or just Will and I, I'd be pushing to stay right here. Might even call the hotels myself and - how odd - get a convenient 'we're all full' message." He winked. "Of course, I'd still be encouraging you to come back to the bed," he added suggestively, his voice hitting that deeper timbre Alex remembered too well from this morning in the kitchen.

Alex felt heat flare in his groin yet again and for the twenty-seventh time fervently wished he could slip easily back into his asexual head space, when the urgent drives of his dick just didn't factor into his life. "You know you two are seriously freaking me out, don't you," he blurted before he even realized he was speaking out loud.

"Sorry about that," Walter tossed off, not sounding at all apologetic.

Alex glared at him and got a smart-ass grin in return.

Mulder and Will chose that moment to walk back in from the kitchen, hand-in-hand. Sheldon lifted his head off his paws, but for once stayed at Alex's feet instead of bounding to the boy. Will casually glanced toward the bedroom, then went to the couch and climbed up onto it. Momentarily, the stuffed weasel floated around the corner from the bedroom and directly to his arms. He lay back in the corner of the couch, smiling and humming. Mulder settled at the other end of the couch.

Alex stared at Will, and the boy stared back, content. And speaking of bizarre... "You have one happy kid, Mulder."

"I know it. Wild, huh? Although perhaps he's feeling extra happy right now because his dad is, too. He does the empathic thing so much with me, and I'm probably leaking all kinds of happy vibes at the moment." Mulder beamed at him.

Great. This is going to be comfortable. Alex realized his fingers were fidgeting with the quilt still laying over the arm of the chair, and forced them to still. But he could feel the tension rising in the room like a brewing storm, even as both men just sat, smiling at him. Christ, how did normal people handle things like this?

Face it, nothing about this, or you, is normal.

Fine... so how did he handle it? He opened his mouth, but all that came out was, "Lunch? Anyone?"

Christ. Since when had cooking become a way to channel anxiety? He supposed it was just that he never had people in the house and now that he did, all he could think of to do with them was feed them. His brain stuttered and immediately tossed up multiple images of other activities it could think of for him to do with his visitors. Meanwhile, outside of his brain, Mulder and Skinner both spoke at the same time.

"No thanks, I'm fine."

"Breakfast is holding me."

Lovely. He subsided back into his chair. Uncomfortable silence reigned for another long moment and Alex had happy thoughts about the good old days in a Tunisian jail, surrounded by people he didn't know, none of whom tried to talk to him.

"Is there more coffee?" Walter finally asked, gesturing at Mulder's mug, and Mulder nodded. Walter rose then paused. "Can I get you anything, Alex?"

"I made him tea," Mulder snapped immediately.

Walter raised an eyebrow at him, obviously irritated. "Ah yes, the fine art of boiling water. Are you hungry, Alex? Can I get you anything from the kitchen?"

Mulder rose. "You get your coffee, I'll take care of Alex. Do you want more tea? Something else? Something to go with it?"

"I'm quite capable of getting myself coffee and whatever Alex needs, Mulder," Walter shot back. "Oddly enough, I've been getting coffee for myself for years, and even fixing my own dinner. Some of us actually use our kitchens, and don't live on take out."

"Are you implying I'm not capable of getting whatever Alex needs?" Mulder asked in a deceptively mild voice. Alex heard the undertone, so familiar from so many of his own interactions with Mulder, and winced. "Because let me assure you, I am well prepared to satisfy all of Alex's needs."

Walter immediately rose to the bait, and aimed right for the subtext, dropping all pretense that they were talking about getting Alex anything from the kitchen. "Riiiight, because you have such a long, successful history with relationships. Of course you're just the person to meet his 'needs'." The sarcasm dripped off every word.

"Alex and I have discussed that already!" Mulder stalked around the coffee table, his voice rising. "Neither of us has the best history, and we're willing to work on that together. It puts us in a position to understand each other-"

"Has it occurred to you that maybe he needs someone who can make him a priority?" Walter took the two steps forward necessary for the two men to be standing face to face. "Someone with the ability and experience to do just that? Put him first and love him, and care for him and be here for him-"

Alex felt the words like a punch to his solar plexus. He physically couldn't catch his breath, and lifted a hand to his chest. Panic bloomed in his gut.

"-and hug him and squeeze him and name him George?" Mulder sneered. "You are unbelievable! Are you honestly implying I can't love him? Truly care for him?"

"No! I'm not implying it! I'm stating it as a fact!" Alex watched speechless as Mulder started to interrupt again and Walter rode right over him just by ratcheting up the volume. "I supervised you for years and watched you interact with more people than I can count. You don't play well with others! You never did, and word around the Bureau is you still don't. People put up with working with you because they want in to the X Files! They join up in spite of you. You're a self-centered man with a superiority complex, Mulder, and you have room for exactly two priorities in your life - yourself, and now Will. And I was damned surprised you were that successful with making him a priority! Somehow I just don't see you broadening that circle. Look at the way you disregarded and just rolled over Scully's needs in favor of your own all those years! And she was supposedly the most important person in your life! You're selfish, Mulder. You're moody and you're obsessive and you completely lose track of everyone but yourself when you're onto one of your obsessions... or hell, just when something tickles your fancy. No, I don't think you can care for Alex, not like I can, not like he needs, and no, as a matter of fact I don't think you're what he needs!"

A slowly steaming Mulder erupted the minute Walter paused for breath. "And I suppose Alex needs someone like you, because doesn't everyone need a real man to take charge? An authoritarian hardass who can come in and assess the situation and put everything the way it should be. And of course he knows how everything should be because he can only see what's right in front of his face, and is too damn good at ignoring what doesn't fit his world view! Why the hell would someone like Alex need you? You're domineering, stuck in the past, you think you know what's best for everyone and everything. You say I've got a superiority complex?! YOU think no one can manage things as well as you and that you're the only one who's really responsible. Well, that's bullshit. You think I don't understand people? Hello, psychologist! AND I'm a fucking telepath now! Did that slip your mind, Mr. Care and Concern? And what's up with that act? You're about as warm as a Frigidaire in the Antarctic. Who the hell are you to decide what Alex needs? That's just like you, making the unilateral call, saying I'm not good enough, putting yourself in as lord and master, protector and caretaker. He doesn't need a fucking caretaker! He's not an invalid and he's not a child and he's not your employee and... and... and I am perfectly capable of love, you arrogant, supercilious BASTARD! How dare you question my parenting?"

"So you're going to give up traveling all over the country, give up dropping your responsibilities at the drop of a hat, give up showing off that 'superior intelligence' of yours? Having worked with you as long as I have, I can say not fucking likely! You'll be leaving him sitting here alone in Vermont three weeks out of four. Oh yeah, that's a relationship, Mulder."

"And you think a man like him needs - or hell, even WANTS - someone sitting around holding his hand all day?! How deluded are you? You do remember who we're talking about here, right? Alex Krycek? International espionage agent who ended up working with the aliens and making it possible to bring down the Consortium? Single-handedly playing about five sides against the middle?"

"I know damn well who he is, thank you very much... and I think I understand him a lot better than you do, for-"

"Of course you do, because you understand EVERYONE even better than they do themselves, never mind that I've been in his mind and could tell you more about what he might need than you could imagine in-"

When the two voices started hollering over each other and only every fourth word was understandable, Alex managed to make himself move. Forcing back his whirling panic at all the random mentions of 'love' and 'care' and 'relationship' - that were entirely too much for him to think about right now - he pushed himself out of the recliner, shoving it backwards with a loud scrape. He lifted his voice over both of theirs.

"Dammit! I am NOT some fucking doe to be fought over in rutting season! Unlock your fucking antlers and KNOCK IT THE HELL OFF!"

Both litanies cut short mid-yell, and two identical startled expressions turned to him. He wondered momentarily if they'd even remembered he was in the room. He wouldn't be surprised if they hadn't. It was more like a pissing contest just between them. His teeth set on edge, his fists tightly clenched, his own tension vibrating like a plucked rubber band, he wanted nothing more than...

Than...

What DO you want? The voice in his head didn't even sound like himself... it was almost as if it was alien, foreign, another language that he understood without knowing he knew it. The true, deep curiosity in it rang an answering chord in his soul, calling to his honesty, at least with himself.

What do I want?

That's easy. Both of them. That's what I want, and-

The rest of the answer that rose to the surface instantly made it out of his mouth before he could edit it. "On second thought...," he held the pause for another moment, forehead crinkling, "Go ahead. Fight over me. My ego could use the boost." He waved a hand at them to continue, and sat down in his chair, watching them expectantly.

Mulder and Walter stood their gaping at him, and he had to bite back a laugh. It didn't even feel hysterical. Why should he choose? They both wanted him. Let them duke it out. They wanted to get all Wild Discovery on him and bridle and roar and snap at each other... let them. Instead of stressing about it, or feeling guilty, he'd sit back and enjoy the show.

Mulder's mouth quirked first. He coughed on a chortle, and Walter's lips twitched. They looked from Alex to each other. Walter relaxed into a wry smile, his hand coming up to rub up under his glasses, massaging his eyes. Mulder tilted his head back, hands on his hips, and sighed to the ceiling. "Yeah, okay," he said. "So we're being a bit... childish."

Alex raised an eyebrow. "Oh what... now I'm not good enough to fight over?" Mulder's grin got wider, and the look of pure affection on his face made Alex misplace his oxygen again. He was sure his lungs had just had it.

Walter took a deep breath and crossed his arms over his chest. "Okay, so... we're all adults. At least most of the time. Mulder, I..." he paused, a pained look on his face. "I apologize. For what I said."

Mulder nodded, giving him a sly, sideways look. "Yeah. Me too."

Slightly more sincerely, Walter met his eyes. "I honestly didn't mean to question your parenting. You've done nothing but impress me with you relationship with Will."

Mulder had the grace to look abashed, and shrugged. "Thanks," he mumbled. "I... I am sorry."

"Great. I'm really not good enough to fight over." Alex sighed dramatically and kicked his chair back into the reclining position. "I may just have to have vapors again."

Mulder laughed while Walter shook his head at Alex. Walter cleared his throat and stood straighter. "So. We have a situation, and we've agreed we're adults, and Mulder and I... need to stop pawing the ground."

"And circling each other," Mulder chimed in.

"And pissing on my furniture," Alex muttered.

Ignoring Alex's comment with the skill of years of practice in the Bureau, Walter faced Mulder. "We have a direct conflict of interest here. And somehow I'm getting the sense that asking Alex to flat out choose may be a bit unfair to him at this juncture. Especially given the whole unexpectedness of all this, to him. How are we going to resolve this?"

Mulder rolled his head on his shoulders, cracking his neck. "This isn't the kind of puzzle solving my mind is geared for. I'd be better at investigating the reasons why Alex Krycek is so supernaturally attractive."

Alex snorted while Walter grinned. Alex watched as Mulder glanced over his shoulder and his gaze lit on Will curled up against the arm of the couch, watching with huge eyes. For all the yelling and screaming, and for all that Mulder had been one of the combatants, Will looked preternaturally calm.

"And what about you, Mr. Will?" Walking to him, Mulder scooped him up into his arms then carried him back to the triangle of Walter, Alex and himself. "How do you think we should settle this?"

Will twisted in Mulder's arms, and reached out both pudgy little arms toward Alex. Startled, Alex found himself standing and reaching out to take the boy from Mulder. Will practically leapt from Mulder's arms to his, and settled against Alex like a little monkey, his weasel still clasped in one hand. The hazel eyes so like his father's stared into Alex's.

"Alex happy?"

Alex blinked, the familiarity of the feel of the voice rocking him to his core. What DO you want? He felt the boy's eyes locked on his, felt and recognized the presence that was Will in his mind. It was unlike his experiences with the aliens, very different from when he felt Mulder's mind nibbling at his and testing for entry. Will just... was. And he was there. Calm, waiting, watchful... understanding. Alex felt himself answering, that same chord of truth being struck and ringing with clear, reverberating tones. "Yes, Alex is happy." He tried to clear his throat, his voice huskier than usual. "A little confused, maybe. A lot overwhelmed. But pretty damn happy."

Will nodded, his hand patting Alex's shoulder, then he twisted back and reached for Mulder. Mulder, staring at the pair wordlessly, stepped forward and caught Will under the arms. Will curled into him and rested his head on Mulder's shoulder. "Alex happy," he pronounced. As if that solved everything.

pov change

Walter watched the interchange with a growing sense of something large and important shifting, somewhere, somehow. The air felt charged. He couldn't put his finger exactly on what the feeling meant, or where it came from. He just knew as he watched the incongruous sight of the little boy talking so seriously with Alex, that there was more going on than the humoring of a small child.

As Alex answered, Walter felt his chest tighten. Happy worked. Happy was good. The halting way Alex said it made Walter wonder if he'd ever said it before. He swallowed against the thickness in his throat.

If he had to put up with Mulder's presence... could he? Could he accept another man trying to win Alex's favor? It went against every instinct, every proprietary bone in his body. He wanted Alex for his own. He wanted to claim him, demonstrate exactly how intense that claiming could be. Wanted Alex to look at him and see him the way he looked at Alex.

He couldn't. He couldn't do it. Couldn't tolerate another man. It was just too much, too-

Will's calm, certain voice flattened his thoughts, his anxiety. "Alex happy."

And Will would know, wouldn't he. Walter felt his shoulders slump, lifted his hand and ran it over his scalp. A gentle calm settled in his stomach and spread outward. He could do this. Mulder wouldn't even be around all the time. He'd as much as said so during their screaming match. It wasn't necessarily forever... just enough to give Alex time to adjust.

You're kidding yourself, whispered a small voice. Mulder gets his hooks in, you'll never be rid of him. You know what he's like.

Yes. He did know. Mulder might not be in his face 24/7, but he'd be there and he'd make his presence known, and felt. Walter would need to be able to deal - truly deal - with Alex having a... relationship... with Mulder, if he wanted to pursue a relationship with Alex himself. He couldn't go in planning to change the playing field once a few months had gone by.

Could he do that? Would he do that?

For a happy Alex Krycek? In his arms, in his life... alive and well and whole?

No more wasted time.

He could damn well try. He sure as hell wasn't about to give up without trying.

pov change

Mulder blinked. "Alex happy." As if that was the answer.

He paused. His mind resettled in a new configuration, without his even realizing it had been shaking out. Alex happy. The 'click' as his thought processes rolled out through new gates, down new pathways, felt like the familiar rush of synaptic connections when his 'intuition' jumpstarted.

Maybe... maybe that was the answer. The answer that solved everything. He stared at his son, who stared back at him with a serene smile that said all was right with the world. The certainty struck him at a soul deep level. It felt right. Too right not to be.

Alex happy. All he really needed to know.

Taking a deep breath, he lifted his eyes and looked at Alex, drinking him in. Then he deliberately shifted his gaze to Walter, and straightened, firmed his chin. "Well. If Alex is happy... then that's good enough for me."

Walter watched him for long moments, serious brown eyes searching his face. But Mulder knew him well enough to know he wouldn't back out now. And sure enough, that little bit of a shift forward onto the balls of his feet, the subtle ripple of his shoulders... he squared off against Mulder's challenge and nodded.

"I can accept that reasoning."

Mulder nodded. "Then it's agreed."

pov change

"Whoa!" Alex held up both hands, shaking his head. "Hang on, wait just a damn minute. You're saying that you'll... that both of you... are just fine with the fact that I'm not choosing between you because I'm happy that you're both interested in me? And you'll, what... just smile and enjoy it? Right. Forgive my skepticism, but I know both of you better than that." Alex's eyes cut back and forth suspiciously. Letting them duke it out was one thing. Watching them come to some immediate agreement through bizarre unspoken communication was another thing altogether.

Mulder shifted Will onto his hip as Walter faced Alex calmly. "I didn't say I'd smile," Walter corrected. "I said I can accept that reasoning. And I can. You being happy... I can appreciate that's no small thing." Walter glanced back at Mulder, a glimmer of approval and respect in his eyes. "Collectively, we've spent a fair amount of time making each other miserable. Maybe it's time we stopped looking for ways to screw things up, and just started to concentrate on the happy." He turned back to Alex and smiled gently. "I told you, Alex. I knew from the moment I saw you in that dining hall, alive. I knew that if this was actually a second chance, I was taking it, to hell with anything else. I think this," he waved his hand to encompass Mulder and Will, "falls into the anything else category."

"And we talked about it, too, Alex. In a way. When we said we both knew we weren't exactly in the normal range on this relationship front. I think this is representative of exactly what we were talking about. So... we figure out what will work for us. I'm good with that. It doesn't mean it's a relationship structure that the rest of the world could live with... it just needs to be one we can live with."

Alex felt the room spin and he sat down, hard. They were being so reasonable and... making sense. How come when he thought it, it sounded crazy, but when they said it, it sounded reasonable? "I don't believe this."

"Of course, you realize this doesn't mean we'll just roll over on anything you want." Mulder's grin took on a devilish glint. "I don't suppose you'd consider coming back to Washington DC?"

Alex shook his head. "No. No, I like it here. I like my life here. I like Vermont." He didn't add 'too damn many bad memories in DC.' But he thought it, and watching Mulder nodding, he had a suspicion Mulder didn't even need to exercise his telepathy to pick up the thought.

"It won't matter to me," Walter shrugged. "I'm done. I've already decided. I'm writing up my resignation on the plane, if I don't just cancel my return ticket. I think I'm going to be visiting Vermont for the foreseeable future."

Alex felt his mouth drop open, and forced himself to close it. The solid weight of the words landed over his shoulders like the warmth of a blanket.

Mulder looked vaguely irritated, but shook it off well. "I'd already made the same call."

Walter started, and gave Mulder an incensed look. "You can't quit! What about the X Files!"

Mulder shrugged, and smiled at Will. "John finally gets off his ass and takes over. Or someone else does. I hate running the damn department. I hate being a boss, supervising people. I want to investigate. I can do that on my time. On my dime, if I need to. And I can take all the speaking gigs that I've had to turn down." He raised his head and met Walter's glare head-on. "And given what you just said, I don't see how you have anything to say about whether or not I leave the Bureau."

Alex ran both hands back through his hair, his voice rising in agitation. "This is just... this is too much. I don't want to be the reason you guys quit your jobs. Fuck, what if you get up here and find out in two weeks that you can't stand it here, or in two months you can't stand the sight of me? What if it just doesn't work?"

"You're not the reason, Alex, you don't need to take on that kind of responsibility. You're just a damn good incentive." Mulder smiled. "If I wasn't already dissatisfied, I'd be coming up with some alternative to quitting, trust me."

Walter released a frustrated sigh. "That's basically the story with me, too. And hey, it may not work out. I certainly know that going in. I'm going to do everything in my power to make it work, but that is always the risk. No guarantees."

"No guarantees," Mulder nodded emphatically.

"But what about Will... and Scully," Alex shook his head. "You can't-"

Mulder laughed and walked toward Alex's chair, crouching down to one side and settling Will on his thigh. "Do we need to start fighting over you again to get you to accept reality, Alex? I'll work it out. I already have some ideas. Besides, I don't think your puppy has any intentions of letting my son go."

Walter came forward and lowered himself on the other side of the chair. "Might as well face it, Alex. You're stuck with us. We'll all figure this out somehow."

Alex looked back and forth between the two of them, nonplussed. This was too much. He didn't deserve this, didn't deserve them...

Will leaned forward from Mulder's arms and batted Alex's knee, looking as annoyed as a three year old cherubic face could possibly look. Alex met his eyes, and Will very deliberately shook his head. "No." The little boy voice came strong. "Stop." He held Alex's eyes as he sat back against Mulder, and Alex felt a rush of calm reasserting itself.

Something Jeremiah had told him over and over bubbled up in his brain. Happiness isn't deserved or not deserved. It just is. There is no cosmic scorecard, unless you're fighting aliens. He had to grin at the thought. Christ, once in there, Jeremiah's philosophy never went away.

But Will was nodding at him approvingly, and smiling again.

He sat back in his chair and his gaze swept over the two men on the floor on either side of him. He couldn't keep the smile off his face. In all of his extremely bizarre life, this had to be the most bizarre moment yet. "I think you're both nuts. Stark raving mad."

Mulder nodded. "Entirely possible. But, you did say we could fight over you."

Walter agreed. "You did. We both heard you. We're just taking you up on it."

"Well, then," Alex paused and tried to paste on a thoughtful look. "I know it's only two weeks away, but can you guys be back up here by Christmas? Maybe for your next face off against each other you could do escalating Christmas presents. I'm suddenly getting some very good idea of a few things I'd like..."

Two weeks later
December 23, Christmas Eve Eve

A

lex settled into his chair at the Grafton Tavern and glanced around at the other tables. "How the hell did you manage to get us in here for tonight?" The Tavern, aside from being one of the most expensive and renowned restaurants in the area, was also an inn, always booked for the holidays. Not that anyone would know, given the preponderance of jeans and flannel shirts in the room, but the crowd was distinctly upper crust. With the short notice, Alex knew his date had to have pulled some major strings to get them in.

Walter grinned as he seated himself across from Alex. "Anything for you. Haven't you figured that out by now?"

Alex gave him a suspicious look. "This place is booked over a month in advance for special occasions. You didn't knock over some old, rich couple on the icy streets and steal their reservation, did you?"

"Please! Would I? I just used a little of that influence that I hardly ever rely on. You know, being a highly placed government official with the ear of the President. That, and helping bring down the biggest conspiracy in history, not to mention an alien invasion, did wonders for opening up a table for us."

Alex gave a low whistle of appreciation. He laughed, but the appreciation was genuine. Walter truly didn't trade on his name; for him to have done so tonight was another indication of his commitment to his campaign.

And speaking of the campaign... as the waiter brought a bottle of champagne to the table, a flat gold box slid across the table cloth toward Alex. He flushed and put his hand over the small gift, waiting until the waiter left. "You didn't!" he hissed.

"Number twelve," Walter murmured, eyes glinting.

"Well I'm not opening it. Not here." Alex kept his hand pressed on top of the box as if expecting the cover to fly off and something embarrassing to leap out. Which wasn't far from the truth. So far for the twelve days of Christmas, which Walter had arbitrarily selected to be December 12th through the 23rd, Walter had hand delivered a gift each day. And each day the gaily wrapped boxes offered up a selection of finely crafted, lovingly-selected, and thoroughly embarrassing erotic items.

Massage oils were fine. Even ones that heated up. And came with explicit instructions. From there, it had just gone downhill with the speed of a luge. He'd thought the expensive, sexy thongs in red, green and gold were bad, until he'd opened the cock ring with the jingle bells. The fur-lined green leather cuffs had Walter telling him how adorable he was when he blushed, which he really didn't need to hear. He'd doubted it could get worse, but then he opened the peppermint stick vibrator on day ten. The vibrator specially selected to match in measurement its rank in the twelve days.

Couldn't possibly get worse after that...

Except that he just about died when he'd lifted the top off a standard shirt box to find a handmade wooden paddle yesterday.

So no. No way in HELL was he opening this present in public, in this restaurant.

Walter's expression told him his resistance would last all of five seconds.

Sure enough, a large hand settled on his knee under the table, strong fingers stroking up his inner thigh. "But Alex, I got it just for you."

"Yes, and you also got the chocolate body paint just for me... doesn't mean I want to open it in the Grafton Tavern dining room!" Alex tried to stop Walter's hand unobtrusively, but had to abandon the attempt when the waiter returned to describe the specials. Alex listened as attentively as possible with the warm, massaging touch creeping closer to his crotch. Walter's knuckles brushed against his swelling cock just as the waiter finished describing a seafood dish that was either shrimp or scallops... or maybe it was steak for all Alex knew. He nodded and made an appreciative sound; the waiter seemed satisfied and drifted away. "Stop it!"

"Open my present and I'll stop."

"No!"

"Would I embarrass you in public?"

"Yes."

"Just open it! You're going to like it, I promise." The flutter of fingers accompanied the words.

"That's what I'm afraid of. Considering what you've given me so far, I am not opening this in public."

"But that's what Christmas is all about, Alex. Just like the song... 'little boy toys, coming from a sack'." Walter hummed merrily, rubbing the backs of his fingers up and down the bulge in Alex's pants, in time to the music.

"What?! That is not a song!"

"Yes, it is. You've never heard that? It's 'Little Toy Trains'. I mean how would you define 'boy toys' for someone your age?" Walter winked.

"Little boy toys? They actually put that in a Christmas song?"

"Sure. It's a Santa song... 'Little toy trains, little toy tracks, little boy toys, coming from a sack, carried by a man dressed in white and red,'" Walter leaned closer to husk the final line, "'little boy, don't you think it's time you were in bed'. Have to say I agree with that sentiment."

Alex flushed and glanced around at the tables nearby. "Shhh..."

"I figured you probably didn't need a toy train, but everyone can use a few boy toys, hmm?" Walter rubbed his knuckles more firmly between Alex's thighs.

"Walter! Stop it!"

"Open the present."

"No. Absolutely not."

"Come on, Alex! I'm not asking you to show the entire restaurant! It's a very small box. How bad could it be?"

Alex gave him a stern glare, somewhat hampered by the tiny moan he tried to swallow as Walter shifted his hand and squeezed gently. "Please," Alex whispered softly.

"Open the present."

With a huff of exasperation, Alex opened the gold paper with trembling hands and cautiously lifted the box lid. Inside was a single small sheet of heavy cream paper, folded in half. Curiosity hooked, Alex took the lid off completely and unfolded the paper, reading the short note.

He swallowed hard. Tried to keep his cheeks from heating through sheer willpower, and lost almost immediately.

"You... it..." He lowered his voice to a whisper and cut his eyes over to a grinning Walter. "Wrapped in ribbon? Now?" His eyes dropped toward Walter's lap, shielded by the table. The desire to duck under the table and unzip the jeans to check the veracity of the note was overwhelming.

"Mm hmm. Right now. Just for you. And you know what this means," Walter lifted an eyebrow. "You have to unwrap it on the twelfth day. So tonight by midnight. But until then, you can just sit and picture it." His eyes sparkled. "Over our nice... long... dinner."

Alex squirmed in his chair. "What... color ribbon?" he finally asked, slightly breathless.

Walter laughed, and the low rumbling sent shivers up Alex's spine and down into his balls. "Red, of course. All wrapped up just for you to untie."

"Can I feel-" Alex's hand slid under the table and moved up Walter's thigh but was immediately caught in a firm grip.

"Nope. Not until after dinner. Back at your place." Walter moved Alex's hand to the table top, and held it there. His smile softened suddenly and he squeezed the hand he held. "And Alex, you do understand... all you have to do is unwrap." He winked. "No pressure to immediately play with the new toy. I'm not trying to push."

Alex snorted and couldn't help laughing. "Of course you're not." Walter's all out campaign to get into his bed over the last two weeks had been nothing short of one long push. Not that Alex minded. He actually found being pursued so ardently... nice. To put it mildly. He'd only held Walter off this long out of an internal sense of fairness to Mulder... who wouldn't be returning to Vermont until the next day. Walter had simply not gone back to DC at all, moving into a local inn and beginning his resignation process from there. Mulder hadn't had that choice, but had arranged almost instantaneously to be in Vermont by Christmas Eve, even convincing John and Scully to come to Vermont with Will for a Christmas holiday, so he could also be with his son.

Alex didn't doubt that Scully, and Doggett, had agreed in order to get up here and check him out. He assumed they'd wait until December 26 to start grilling him, but he wasn't going to count on it.

But Mulder would be back tomorrow. He'd called and emailed Alex numerous times in the past two weeks, and though Alex knew he was not happy about Walter's presence in Vermont - getting a 'head start' as Mulder called it - in his communications he steered clear of that topic and instead employed his considerable wit and charm in convincing Alex he was serious in his pursuit.

Of course, there was that fourth conversation that almost turned into phone sex...

And got carried over into the email exchange the following day.

All told, Alex couldn't remember being this horny since he'd been about 15, and if he weren't enjoying the anticipation quite so much, he'd have tackled Walter by now. All in all, tonight sounded very timely.

"I do have to warn you though," Alex murmured, leaning closer. "I can be a very... slow... unwrapper. I like to linger in the anticipation."

"I've noticed," Walter muttered, and Alex laughed again. Walter gave him a grudging smile. "Tease."

Alex let the building passion show in his eyes as he held Walter's gaze. "Believe me, I'm looking forward to unwrapping my present... and then trying it out."

The smile that lit Walter's face outshone every candle on every table in the restaurant.

Christmas Eve

W

ell, we were ostensibly Jewish. But I mostly think my parents didn't want pine needles all over the place."

Alex laughed, snorting eggnog by accident. "Oh fuck, that hurt." He rubbed the bridge of his nose.

Mulder hung another glass ball on the pine tree he'd set up in Alex's living room upon arriving that afternoon. They were aiming for having it done by the time Will arrived with John and Scully, later that evening. "Did you ever notice how some of these ornaments look like little alien crafts?"

"Actually, I hate to say it but... yes. I have noticed."

Mulder grinned at him. "See? We understand each other." He reached out and brushed a lock of hair off Alex's forehead.

Their eyes caught and held. Alex felt a surge of pure happiness explode in his chest. The casual comment, the affectionate touch, the afternoon of laughter... it all collided inside him and set off warm sparks. Without thinking, he caught Mulder's hand, turning his face to press a kiss into the palm. The scent of pine and Mulder, the slight tremor in Mulder's hand as he opened his lips against it... how had he gotten here? He didn't know, he didn't care, he didn't want to question it.

It just is.

After the previous night, he'd expected to be more tired. He certainly hadn't gotten much sleep. He'd also expected to possibly feel a little awkward, all things considered.

The energized, buzzing feeling was unexpected, though not unwelcome. His body had been humming all day, even more so since Mulder's arrival. Whether it was just allowing for the physical connection with Walter after so long alone, or Mulder's presence, or some combination of the two... Alex felt settled into his own skin and aware of himself in a way he couldn't remember. It felt... delicious. And not awkward in the least.

As he started to release Mulder's hand, Alex met the hazel eyes again and the kindling glow in them made him tighten his hold instead and pull Mulder closer. Taking one step forward, Alex met him halfway and kissed him full on the mouth, trying hard to continue ignoring his thought processes.

Mulder blinked in delighted surprise as Alex's lips left his. He glanced at the half completed tree, then at the man at his side. "You know, I think Will would really enjoy helping decorate this thing," he declared. Turning fully, he pulled Alex into his arms and tilted his head, capturing Alex's mouth with his own.

The taste of cinnamon and vanilla mingled between them. They parted slowly and Alex trailed his tongue across Mulder's bottom lip. "I think... you're right." He slid his hands down Mulder's chest, then worked the turtleneck shirt out of the waist of worn jeans. "How much longer before they're due to arrive?" He nuzzled Mulder's ear.

"At least... mmm... two more hours."

Alex smiled against Mulder's throat, then lifted his head. "Mm, two hours. Enough time?" He played one hand up under Mulder's shirt.

"Oh, I think that'll do... for a start." Mulder released him and started walking backward, catching Alex's hands and drawing him toward the couch. "By the way, I've gotten my New England talks rescheduled." His grin broadened as he tumbled back onto the couch, pulling Alex down with him, immediately moving in to wind his arms around him again.

"Yeah?" Alex settled with a sigh of contentment as Mulder curled against him and began kissing up his jaw to his ear, then down his throat.

"Mmm... January." He bit down gently then pulled back to meet Alex's eyes. "I'll go to DC for about a week and a half after the holiday, then I'll be back by January 15."

Alex could see the question hovering right behind the eyes, the tentative tone under the pronouncement. Unsure of his welcome, unsure if Walter had established more of a foothold than he could possibly catch up to. Alex smiled and cupped Mulder's face in his hands. "That'll do. For a start."

Christmas Day

W

ill Scully sat on the floor with Sheldon flopped next to him, his weasel cradled in one arm. He watched his father and his Uncle Walter circle around Alex, keeping a congenial distance between them as they did.

To his unique eyes, it resembled a dance. A patterned, weaving dance where the participants were just learning the steps, and which way to turn when they couldn't see where they were going. The loops and curlicues weren't swooping and rounded like his mother and John's, not yet, but they were smoother than they'd been before.

And besides, it would take longer, be more complicated. There were three of them, after all, not two. And all three didn't entwine in the same way. Some separations would always exist. His brain couldn't yet name the concepts, but his mind's eye could see it.

He pushed himself to his feet, making a soft sound of reassurance as Sheldon's head lifted. Toddling across the room to Alex's chair, he batted Alex on the knee then crawled up onto him, amused by the surprise Alex showed at Will's comfort with him. He settled himself into Alex's lap, insinuating his own pattern among the swirl of three.

He'd already decided to keep this one.

Now he just needed to figure out how to get his mother and John to move to New England.

THE END
 

Please click here to send Feedback to the Author
 

© These pages are copyright to their authors and may not be reproduced without permission of the author.
All rights of others in characters and names remain the property of those authors. No attempt is made to supersede or infringe upon the copyrights held by the television and film companies upon which these materials are based