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Waking The Dead

by Ratadder

 

Skinner ground his teeth and downshifted. The dirt road was fast becoming more of a muddy cow path between two brooks. The cold, soaking rain falling in DC had gotten harder in Maryland, turned into a sloppy sleet in New Jersey, then wet snow that splattered the windshield before he even hit New York. According to the car radio, the weather pattern only promised to get worse, and his current 'road' went nowhere but up.

The weather had been the only piece they couldn't plan.

Once he left the highways then the town roads, then even the better back roads for this practically forgotten mountain trail deep in the Adirondacks, the effects of said weather pattern became more pronounced, not to mention more dangerous. The snow came harder and faster. Large branches sometimes entire trees bent toward the road with their heavy burdens, looming ominously. It might be a blizzard now, but the storm must have started out as rain in New York as well. Water collecting in the ditches and racing downward had cut them deeper and started to eat away at the sorry excuse for a road from both sides. As the snow piled up, the ditches became blanketed, their depth hidden.

White Christmases be damned. He was perfectly happy with his rainy Washington Decembers.

He drove as fast as he dared, dreading coming up on a complete wash out or driving straight into a snow-covered ditch. He really really did not want to get stuck beside the road tonight.

As if prompted by the thought, the tires slid and the snowy mud sucked the car toward the right hand ditch that was currently doing a convincing imitation of a mini river. Steering out of the swerve, Skinner swore, immediately recognizing he'd been in the car alone for too damn long when his own voice startled him.

Well, not exactly alone...

Best not to think about that though. He kept trying to convince himself he didn't care if the passenger curled up in the trunk in a drugged stasis-sleep might be coming awake; didn't care if said passenger came to in the tight, confined, dark, suffocating space of a car trunk, despite suffering from raging claustrophobia.

He'd been trying to convince himself of his own indifference for most of the 500-plus-mile drive. He sure as hell didn't want to care, and was flat out pissed at himself for the way the edge of worry kept eating at the back of his mind, like the water constantly nibbling at the road.

He just kept picturing eyes snapping open, within the sheathing blankets carefully positioned to allow the best airflow just in case while simultaneously concealing the shape of a body. Would Krycek remember? Would he know the weight on top of him for the half-filled soft-sided suitcases he himself had packed?

Or would the dark and the confinement overwhelm his senses, his claustrophobia, trigger panic and just...

Just STOP it! Walter clenched the steering wheel and forced his shoulders back against the seat, arching his back as best he could, twisting against the tension. Smith had assured them as best he could that Krycek would remain completely out of it until Walter himself administered the wake-up call. But he couldn't promise.

NOT my problem. Krycek knew the risks when he signed on. Krycek had been the one advocating being put in the trunk, for Christ's sake.

Walter had been all for stashing him on the floor of the backseat, waking him up once they were out of DC proper, and just turning the car over to him. Hell, wasn't getting shot in the head on camera! a convincing enough death? That film would be out over all the interested channels before the next 12 hours was out. No doubt Skinner would have some Consortium asshole knocking on his door, waving a copy of it under his nose, threatening to send the Director photos of him wrapping up the body and carting it off.

Did the bastard really have to disappear tonight, to the ass end of nowhere?

He'd advocated strongly just leaving the car to Krycek and letting him disappear all on his own. Walter would find his own way back to DC from some anonymous stop on the Jersey Pike.

But Krycek was having none of it. Didn't want to risk even the glimmer of a chance of being seen driving, despite all the crazy holiday traffic providing the perfect cover. Hell, he could probably get on a damn airplane anytime within the next few days in complete safety.

But no. Cameras in toll booths. Thought it was safer to wait to come out again until they got to the cabin itself, in some remote backwoods hole in upstate New York. Make sure everyone thought Skinner had just gone and dumped the body in the Potomac or something.

Then Jeremiah chimed in with the fact that Krycek wouldn't be in any condition to drive after being woken up anyway, for quite some time, and it was a done deal. Still hadn't meant he had to be in the fucking trunk. Krycek insisted it would be even worse if he got spotted driving with Walter and it was far too long of a drive to risk being stopped with a body on the floor of the car.

All in all, it was Krycek's own damn fault if the weather delayed them and December traffic sucked and it was more like 11 hours instead of the expected 8, and he woke up on his own in the trunk of a fucking car with suitcases on top of him and no light and not remembering he'd planned to be there.

Walter's fingers tightened as his headlights caught a widening trench up ahead, filled with rushing water. And the point is, I don't care, he reminded himself yet again, as he guided the car carefully around it.

***

The snow came ever thicker as he unlocked the trunk at the hunting cabin that he'd come upon just about the time he'd begun to think it was nonexistent, or possibly burned to the ground since the last time Krycek had used it. The plan called for him to get inside and get things set up, warmed up, before administering the shot Jeremiah had provided.

Screw the plan. He was waking Krycek up now.

Presuming the man wasn't already awake. Though he hadn't heard any banging around in the trunk and he had to assume he would have...

He popped the trunk and dragged the suitcases sideways, tossing two out to the snowy ground, then pulled back the blanket to expose Krycek's face. In the strange, stark light of the trunk's interior the waxy-pale face was stiff and still. Two fingers tested the skin and found it cool, sought a pulse that didn't beat. Walter gave a sigh of relief and let the blanket fall over Krycek again, then worked on getting his arms under the unwieldy burden.

Grumbling and cursing, he fought the dead weight out of the trunk, his mind casually tossing up the observation that this was likely why so many killers dismembered bodies when trying to get rid of them. Aching from tension, chilled by the soaking snow, pissed off at even being here, he tugged backwards hard, trying to get Krycek's long legs to unfold. Krycek's weight shifted, Walter's foot slipped in the snow, and his feet went out from under him. Losing his grip on the body completely, he went flat on his back in the snow, the blanket coming with him. With a heavy thud, Krycek's body sprawled half-in, half-out of the trunk, lolling over the back of the car like a broken doll, arm flopping.

"SHIT!" Scrambling back to his feet, Walter lifted the body into a more even position, cradling the head. "I'm sorry... I didn't- I'm sorry-" Realizing the stupidity of apologizing to a completely unresponsive imitation-corpse, he still couldn't quite stem the words. "Damn damn damn." He was responsible here, dammit. It was his job to make sure no more damage was done. His eyes flicked to Krycek's forehead and away again. Even though the bullet wound was sealed from the inside out, and he knew Krycek's brain was already on the mend if not already fully healed, he didn't like looking at the mark.

He sighed. Which was most likely why he kept having these inconvenient battles with his own brain about whether or not he cared if Krycek woke up in the trunk or not, and if more damage got done. Because he felt guilty.

Guilty.

For 'killing' a man who had 'killed' him.

It wasn't the first time he was struck by the odd symmetry the events of this night created.

But... guilty? The fact that he felt guilty drove him crazy.

Crazy or not, Walter Skinner simply wasn't in the habit of executing wounded, disarmed men on their knees. No matter who they were or what their past deeds. And now they had this weird... collaboration. Which was all kinds of confusing.

He tugged Krycek's body again, this time managing to get the legs under control and guided out of the trunk, booted feet falling to the ground. Snow seeped through the back of his pants as he bent forward, getting his hands in under the limp arms... well, arm. Ignoring the discomfort, he concentrated on balancing Krycek's weight, then dragging him toward the cabin.

"I should have known the day you walked into my office for the first time," he muttered to the falling snow. "More trouble than you're worth."

###

Once inside, with Krycek laid out on a couch under a staggering display of antlers, boots off, Walter calmed down and reverted to plan, getting the bags inside the cabin before proceeding to start a fire in the wood stove, turn on the generator, check out the supplies, change his wet clothes. As long as his mind wasn't spinning him images of Alex waking up and freaking out in the trunk of the car, he could manage to concentrate on other priorities and remember all the reasons they were priorities. Heat, food, water. Important stuff. Once he administered that shot, it was possible he'd he a little too busy to worry about getting a fire going, and Jeremiah said the room should be warm for 'best results.' Whatever that meant.

But he still found himself glancing at the body. Again. Alex might not be freaking out in the trunk, but walking back and forth past a dead body in the middle of the room was starting to freak him out. Jeremiah insisted it was perfectly safe, and leaving him checked out longer than planned wouldn't be dangerous, but Krycek just looked... so damn dead.

Not that he cared, he reassured himself, going back to the fire. It wasn't seeing Alex Krycek lying so inert and lifeless that was getting to him. It was just... the overall strangeness. Yes, that was it. After all, the bastard certainly hadn't hesitated to kill him.

And really, how was this any different than Mulder having been dead and in the ground for all that time, until they'd dug him up?

But it was different, his mind whispered. He'd had no clue Mulder was actually alive and the man had been in the ground. Mulder hadn't been packed away in the trunk of Walter's car while he drove all over hell and gone. Hadn't been lying around in all his corpse-like glory in the middle of the room while Walter tried to unpack and wait for a hunting cabin to heat up and act like he was on a... a fucking vacation.

He paused. Looked at the body. Really, the wake up shot was technically way overdue, thanks to all the delays with traffic and weather. And so the room was still a little chilly... he'd put a blanket over the damn fool.

To hell with it. Walter left off right in the middle of unpacking Krycek's backpack, and walked straight to the couch, grabbing the little black case Jeremiah had entrusted to him.

Opening it up, he didn't give himself time to pause and wonder. Just treat it like medical technology you don't understand, his brain instructed, as he extracted a syringe and a vial. Medical. Not alien, just medical. If Scully handed you a flu shot, you'd just inject it. If she was allergic to bees and had an epi pen, you'd just inject it. So... INJECT IT. Drawing up the fluid from the little bottle, he watched the strange way it turned cloudy as it pulled into the barrel, the green shifting from one unnatural shade to another. Medical, medical, medical. Not going to melt his face off. Not going to release poisonous asphyxiating gas.

After all, Jeremiah was one of the more... trustworthy aliens Walter had happened across. Not that he'd actually personally interacted with that many, come to think of it. That he'd known were alien. At the time he'd interacted with them. The syringe filled to the right line, shorting out that ridiculous line of thought. Capping it again he set it aside on the low table by the couch and turned to the body.

Krycek. Not 'the body.'

It was just so odd, after watching the bullet enter. The bullet he'd fired. The real, actual deadly bullet fired from the real, actual deadly weapon. He'd watched him die, and carried around his dead body.

At least he'd had the presence of mind to lay Krycek down with his right side facing out. Kneeling beside the couch, he yanked up Alex's sleeve. Reopened the syringe and found the vein. Injected. Studiously ignored the way Alex's vein seemed to glow green beneath pale skin as he pushed the plunger.

Sat back on his heels and waited.

Nothing happened for two full minutes. The seconds counted off in Walter's head. Anxiety crawled through him and the thud of Krycek's body hitting the side of the car as he'd slipped and sprawled in the snow came back to haunt him. The chill of the room tickled the back of his neck. Was the room still too cold? Was the temperature that important? How hard had he hit the car? What if-

Then 22 seconds into the third minute, lips parted on a stuttering breath and heavy eyelashes jerked upward. A harsh indrawn gasp preceded a violent twitch as involuntary systems restarted. Walter felt every muscle in his own body go lax with relief, and he sat down on the floor, hard. "Fuck."

At the word, Alex's head tilted a bare inch toward him. Confused green eyes fought to focus. Right. 'Might be confused.' No telling how confused, Walter had surmised, seeing somewhere in that carefully expressionless face a hint of all the agents he'd ever supervised who were giving him edited 'details.' He knew Jeremiah was likely just trying to keep him calm and bought into the Plan, but frankly he'd have preferred to get the full picture of what could go wrong.

Jeremiah's instructions were to keep him calm as possible while he eased through the shock of awakening, and let memories come back on their own. Walter forced himself to his knees again and leaned over the couch, making his voice as gentle as he could under the circumstances. "Krycek? Alex. It's me, Skinner. Can you hear me? You're okay. Just relax. You're safe and perfectly okay. You're going to feel strange for a little bit, but you're absolutely fine. You need to relax and stay still. Don't try to move. You'll feel better soon, and you'll remember everything. Just breathe, and relax... you're fine."

Without intending to, he found himself stroking his hand over Krycek's forehead, smoothing his hair, trying to soothe the worried look off the troubled face. It did the trick though, so he continued. "Don't worry about trying to move don't even try. You won't be able to right now, but it's okay. That's normal for what you've been through, and we expected it. You expected it. It'll pass soon, and you'll be able to move just fine. You'll be able to move everything again. All you need to do right now is relax, and breathe slowly. Can you do that for me, Alex? Breathe in nice and slow, that's it." He rested a hand on Alex's chest, "and exhale... inhale..." he paced Alex's breathing to a steady, easy rhythm, keeping his voice calm. The confusion was still present, but relief and trust flooded Alex's face as he stared up at Walter.

In fact, his expression was... very open. Walter felt a curl of discomfort low in his gut. Some instinct whispered that something was very off, but he'd never done this before. He wasn't in the habit of raising the dead from an alien-induced dead-coma. How could he know what it might be that felt wrong, seemed wrong? Watching Krycek's throat swallow convulsively, he tried to put his finger on what exactly felt odd about the way Krycek looked at him.

Color slowly suffused Krycek's cheeks and lips as blood returned to the surface of his skin. Impressed with the speed the revivification serum worked at, Walter felt an involuntary smile curl his lips, as if he was actually glad the bastard looked like he'd be okay. Which I'm not, because I couldn't care less. But hell, smiling could only help keep him calm. I'm glad the Plan is working. That's all.

As if responding to the thought, Krycek returned the smile automatically. And now the expression on his face was downright bizarre... a look Skinner hadn't seen since Agent Krycek walked into his office all those years ago. Not even really a look he'd seen then. Back then Alex's smile had been more... professional. Less personal.

"Do you recognize me?" he heard himself ask. Then, realizing he might be pushing too hard and possibly causing more confusion, he added, "Sorry, can you speak yet? Don't worry if you can't... just blink your eyes."

Pinkening lips parted and Alex's tongue swiped his upper lip before his throat worked, and a rough breath emerged. "...da..." The eyes swept closed but Walter didn't think Alex was signaling trouble talking, and he proved himself right in another second as Alex opened his eyes and spoke again. "Da." He cleared his throat and a tumble of syllables fell from his lips that dumbfounded Walter until his brain clicked and he realized it was Russian.

Oh shit.

His mother may have named him after great-great uncle Sergei, but the man hadn't passed down any of the language. No one in the family had spoken Russian in decades.

Now what?

Wait... I'm speaking English, he's responding...

Duh. The brain scramble must have tossed Krycek back to thinking in an earlier language, but he could still understand English so he could still speak it. Huh. Probably means Russian was his first language. All these strange little details no one knew about him.

"I'm sorry, Alex, I don't understand Russian. Can you speak in English?"

The confused look came back along with another slow string of Russian, the intonation implying a question. Then Alex blinked and frustration crinkled his forehead. "I'm speaking Russian?" he asked with an effort, obviously repeating himself, then it seemed to occur to him how absurd the question was, in English. He breathed out a sound that Walter guessed would have been a hoarse laugh if all his throat muscles had been working correctly.

"I'm speaking Russian. Right. Sorry. My brain... it's... I'm not thinking too clearly, I don't think." He paused, his hand and arm twitching as it tried to lift. "My head... hurts."

"Yes, that's not surprising. You knew it would. You've had a lot of... um... trauma to it. You were in an accident, but you're fine. You're improving by the minute, and the reason you can't move and think straight right now is because we're keeping you nice and still so you don't get too active too fast. Because you know you would," Walter forced a grin and a jocular tone, as if he and Alex were old friends and he knew Alex would try to get out of bed immediately no matter how sick or hurt he was. It was a guess, but an educated one that proved correct when Alex smiled. Somehow Walter had him pegged as someone who didn't do 'sick.'

"Well, yeah, I guess..."

It was hard to tell if coming back from the dead was making Alex's voice throatier or not, given his normal rasp, Walter only knew that the husky murmur made the base of his spine tingle. His brain immediately sent up a red flag protest. Oh now stop right there... don't you DARE go in that direction. He stopped being attractive the day Mulder found those butts.

Traitorous not to mention murderous behavior went a long way to rubbing the shine off of a pretty face and a nice full ass.

It had to be the weird-ass look on that very same pretty face. Weathered, older, tired... more lines... but still pretty, when it was relaxed and unguarded, instead of the usual cold and tense, only relaxing the barest bit in the brief moments he looked an alien in the eye, for fuck's sake.

Here and now, relaxed was an understatement. He hadn't seen Alex look at Jeremiah quite this friendly. Staring up with full trust, as if he just knew Walter would take the best care of him ever. Like it didn't matter that his brain was scrambled and he was basically paralyzed and didn't know what language he was speaking in, as long as Walter was sitting next to him.

Which brought him full circle to... "So, you can speak okay, and in English," he coupled it with a smile. "Do you recognize me?"

"Of course. You're Walter." Alex's smile broadened. "Don't know that I could forget you, no matter how much my head hurts."

He blinked in surprise at hearing his first name, blocking out the rest of the response because his brain was overloading. He was using 'Alex' so he supposed 'Walter' made sense. "That's right. Good. It's me, Walter. You're doing excellent. You'll be feeling just like yourself again in no time. All you need to do is relax." He had to bite his tongue to keep himself from pressing on, asking Alex what he remembered about 'Walter.'

'Don't know that I could forget you...'

The warning of wrong!wrong!wrong! blared like a siren in his head. This was very wrong and he didn't have a clue what to do about it. He eased backward, pulling his hands back off Alex's chest and forehead.

Alex's hand moved immediately, stretching out to catch Walter's and pull it back to his chest.

"Hey, you can move your arm!" He tried to ignore the fact that Krycek's fingers were wrapped around his tightly.

Alex blinked hazily. "Huh. How about that?" He lifted his head enough to look down at his hand, on top of Walter's hand, on his chest. He paused and went unfocused. "I can move my toes, too." Looking back at Walter he moved his head from side to side. "I think I'm coming around. What the hell did I do to myself this time? My head feels like I've been rolling around in an industrial sized dryer. On spin."

Walter considered. "You got hit in the head. Very hard. You knew it was coming, it wasn't a surprise, but it still did a lot of damage. Our friend Jeremiah kind of put you to sleep so your body could rest. We were planning on him doing that too."

"I planned to get hit in the head?" Alex looked doubtful. "That... doesn't sound like me. I don't think. Does it?" The confusion crept back in, and with it an edge of fear. "I can't remember. I just don't think I'd plan that." His breathing tightened, got a little faster.

Walter stepped in hurriedly. "No, you're right. It's not something you would ordinarily do. See, you're getting better every minute." He remembered belatedly he wasn't supposed to be telling Krycek anything. But I can confirm things, surely. Especially if he asks me. "You've got it right you usually go to great lengths to keep yourself OUT of the line of fire." Well, to an extent. Walter's eyes flickered to the missing left arm before he could help himself.

Alex rolled his head in the direction of Walter's eyes. "What the fuck-" His head jerked up, his upper body trying futilely to rise. "What happened? What happened?" Now it was more than fear... downright panic swept over him and his fingers squeezed so tight on Walter's he feared for his bones.

"It's okay, Alex, look at me. Look at me." He gave it his best AD command tone and was gratified to see Alex's head snap back around, green eyes locking on his own. "Good. That's perfect. Keep looking at me. Listen to my voice and try to slow down your breathing." Alex's breath was hitching now, as if he couldn't get enough air. Walter tried to make his tone soothing even as he maintained his supervisor voice, not the easiest mix to achieve. All the while he tried to remember everything Jeremiah had said about what to do if it seemed like the lungs weren't coming online properly. "Slow... inhale, and all the way... slow... see, you can breathe fine. Just keep your eyes on me and listen. I know this is awful and frightening and confusing. I know you only have bits and pieces and everything is strange. But you need to trust me nothing is out of the ordinary. Nothing." Wow... if that wasn't the biggest lie he'd ever told, in a career of trying not to lie and doing it far too often. "When all the pieces come back together, it will all make sense." Sense? Riiight. "You'll remember and it won't be frightening. For now, trust me, that didn't just happen, and as you recover you'll remember how to manage just fine. It's amazing how well you do. You'll see. But that'll take a little bit of time so just trust me, trust yourself and wait out the memories, and let's not talk about or concentrate on anything that is too upsetting for right now, okay? You'll remember all about your... other accident in your own time, and you'll remember how you've adapted and you'll remember it all faster if you stay calm and as relaxed as possible. Don't focus on it now. Focus on me, okay?"

Breathing slowing, Alex nodded, panic receding. "Okay." His voice, normally so icy and unyielding, sounded very small. He took another long breath and spoke earnestly. "I do trust you. I'm sorry... this is such a I don't even know. I'm obviously a mess and you're dealing with it... I'm sure this sucks for you, too."

Now he knew he'd entered an alien landscape. Maybe this cabin was actually some time-warped part of the mothership. Krycek was going from total panic about his missing arm to worrying about how hard this must be for Walter?

Since when did this man think about anybody but himself.

Maybe... since back when he spoke Russian as a first language, a little voice said in Walter's ear.

Ignoring it, Walter shook his head. "Don't apologize. It's fine. I don't mind at all." Let's just stack up the lies. Why not. "Don't worry about me, just relax and keep gathering up those memories. Jeremiah says it's important that they come to you on your own. Don't push it, don't strain to get anything back, just lay here and breathe slow and wiggle your toes and let the feeling come back to everything, and if memories come, let them come, but don't worry if they don't. They will. Don't worry if they're confusing. They'll make sense eventually. I know it's weird for me to not tell you about yourself, about all this, but it's better for you to get it back on your own." Damn good thing, too. You really don't want to listen to me describing you. Not while you're trying to recover.

Although, who knew... with an alien-induced coma, was he doing irreparable damage letting Alex think they were buddies? Was that confirming a mistaken impression?

Jeremiah had instructed him to 'just go with it' when Alex woke up. To not worry if facts were muddled, to just let him come back to things on his own. He'd definitely been more insistent about keeping Alex calm and not letting him get stressed and upset. So he guessed letting things rest where they were wouldn't cause major brain damage.

"Thank you. This... it... it's better somehow. With you here. I feel safe. If you weren't here, this would be so much worse."

Safe. A Russian-speaking amnesiac Krycek recognized him and felt safe with him. He forced himself not to react with anything but a careful smile. "I'm... glad."

Krycek's brow furrowed. "Do I have a lot of accidents?"

Walter paused again. Don't upset him. "...No. Not really."

"Just... you know. The arm. And now whatever happened this time."

"You're usually good at... trying to keep yourself safe." Keep it vague, Walter. "But you're also always willing to do whatever it takes." Ha. No lie there.

"Oh." Confusion returned, but Alex left it at that.

"Okay," Walter pried his fingers carefully from Alex's grip. "I'm going to finish unpacking and everything. Maybe make something to eat. Are you hungry at all?"

Alex shook his head mutely, then winced.

"So just lay here and rest."

"Okay." His voice still sounded so rough and shaky.

Resolutely, Walter turned and went back to the unfinished backpack.

***

Back and forth across the cabin, Walter could feel Alex's eyes follow him every step of the way. He ignored it as best he could, settling them in, heating soup, checking out the bed in the open loft. He tried to avoid even looking over at the couch, but his eyes skated sideways far too many times for comfort. Each time, Alex looked just that little bit tenser, his eyes just that little bit more worried.

I'm here to make sure he's safe. Not to coddle him and hold his hand. And directly on the heels of that thought came all the gentle remonstrations from Jeremiah to keep him calm, keep him from getting upset, don't let him get stressed.

And with that, he made the mistake of turning and looking at Alex full on. What he'd been thinking was worry was in fact flat-out fear. He reflexively started for the couch then caught himself.

"Walter?" Was that an actual quaver in the voice? "Are you... angry about something?"

Oh fuck. Not only am I not keeping him calm, I'm stressing him out more. Great. "No no, not at all. Alex." Without being in the immediate throes of trying to calm the man, 'Alex' didn't come quite so easy to his lips.

Alex's hand extended. "Can you... will you- uh..."

His feet were moving before he could stop himself, and when he got to the couch he caught the reaching hand rather than avoid it, even as his brain screamed at him. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you."

"You were just so quiet. And focused." Krycek gave a shaky laugh. "At first I just didn't want to bother you but then you seemed like you were avoiding me."

"No, no," he lied, squeezing Krycek's hand without thinking about it. "I was just trying to let you rest and relax."

Krycek swallowed hard. The fear in his face hadn't retreated. "Did I used to have a lot of nightmares?"

Nightmares? How the hell should I know? "I don't-" Then it hit him. Of course all the alien shit would bubble up first. And without any context, who would immediately believe their own thoughts, if they were anything like what Krycek was probably remembering? "Oh. Hell." He eased himself onto the floor next to the couch and, weird as it felt, kept hold of Alex's hand. "I think I understand."

Alex's eyes were huge. "They aren't- they aren't nightmares are they." His voice caught. "They're... real? What's in my head. It's real."

"Well, I don't know exactly what's in your head and I'm guessing it won't be stress-free for you to describe it, but I can-"

"Oil."

"Ah." He softened his voice. "I'm sorry. But it's likely that what you're remembering isn't nightmares." Walter squeezed his hand, not sure what Alex's specific experiences might have been with the oiliens, but he was betting anything that was rising up out of Alex's brain had really happened, however horrific it might be. "I know I keep telling you to let the memories just come, and then when you remember stuff I tell you not to focus on it. But... if you can, try not to focus on the disturbing stuff." It sounded absurd even as he said it. But how the hell was he supposed to keep Krycek calm? The man probably had a life history that would terrify Stephen King.

"Will you sit with me?" A pleading quality bled through into Alex's expression and voice. "It helps."

Walter nodded. Knowing everything this man had ever done, he still couldn't just get up and walk away.

And he hated himself for it.

***

He ate his soup next to the couch. Staying beside him did seem to keep Alex calmer, even as more and more bits came floating back to him. He told himself that he actually enjoyed watching the bastard suffer as the memories got bumpier and bumpier. He was only soothing him out of his commitment to Jeremiah's instructions and this damn devil's bargain they had going. He was being logical. Selfless. He was putting personal animosity second to the survival of the human species. He was-

-watching the color drain from Alex's face.

"Alex?"

"I..." Krycek choked to a stop.

"Remember to breathe."

"I just don't understand. The more that comes back to me, the worse I-" he stopped. Stared at Walter, perplexed. "I know you're a good man."

Walter blinked, unsure where this was going. "Not sure I'm following you," he hedged.

"You're one of the only people I respect." The intense emphasis on the final word made it clear it was of huge importance to Krycek, even in his current state. "That's one of the first rock solid pieces that came back. That you're different. It was right there when I opened my eyes and saw you."

The earnest delivery made Walter's stomach flip. He couldn't figure out what the hell was causing Krycek's obviously increasing delusion about his feelings about Walter. None of it made any sense. Unless one counted 'alien virus' or 'alien compound' as 'psychosis inducing agent' which Walter supposed might not be far off and simply wrote this off as Krycek having a total nervous breakdown.

Whether it was psychosis or breakdown, he hadn't the slightest idea how to respond. "Is something bothering you about that?" he finally asked inanely, since Krycek still looked deeply disturbed.

"What I'm remembering is-" he stopped.

Is... you killing me? Me killing you? All of our fantastic personal interactions over the years? "Yes?" he prodded.

In a faltering voice, he finally said, "I've... done things."

No way around that. Sorry, Smith. "Yes, you have." Walter kept his own voice perfectly even.

"Why are you here?"

"What do you mean?"

"You're a good man. I know that. So why are you here with me." He sounded as if he expected Walter to stand up and walk out at any moment, and the thought terrified him.

Well, that's an easy one. "I promised to take care of you while you recovered. I promised to help."

If anything, the fear increased. "But, well, why? I mean, isn't there... anything else? With us?" Alex looked profoundly confused, and somewhat desperate.

"Anything else?" Walter's little chorus of wrongwrongwrong got louder.

"Other reasons why someone like you would be here. I remembered, when I woke up... the one thing that was so clear was how I feel about you. That's the only thing I can think would make you do this, with what I'm remembering. I thought we-" he trailed off, then started again, "But I can't make it work in my head. Why would you be... with me?"

And there it was. Out on the table. Exactly what he'd been getting weird vibes about since Krycek's eyes opened. That's he'd hoped like hell wasn't what it looked like.

Psychosis. Obviously. Has to be. He thinks we're... an 'us.' He actually believes he has real romantic feelings for me.

Smith hadn't prepped him on what to do about a serious delusion that directly involved him. Of course, the odds that Smith could have predicted something this bizarre were astronomical.

So he was on his own. And Alex was waiting for an answer. Looking more and more muddled and lost with each passing second.

Well, you wanted to see him suffer. Walter closed his eyes for a moment, trying to marshal his thoughts. "Alex," he started, then realized he still didn't know what was coming next. Jeremiah had said to go along with it and not give him details, let him come to them. That telling him things would be problematic and his recovery could be 'compromised.' So... lie? To keep Krycek from possibly freaking out and potentially screwing up his brain for good? Could he really lie about THAT? For that matter, did he care if Krycek screwed up his brain for good?

"Alex," he repeated, staring at the floor, scrambling madly to find a happy medium. "Our... relationship is complicated." Gold medal in the Understatement Olympics. He lifted his head and met Alex's worried stare. "And Jeremiah, the one helping us out, the one who put you in this healing coma thing, told me it was important to let you come to your memories on your own. That if I didn't, it could compromise your recovery. His exact words." Walter sighed. "Although he also said you needed to stay calm, and unfortunately I think in your case, 'letting your memories slowly come back to you' and 'staying calm' is going to prove to be something of an oxymoron." He stopped suddenly, as Alex's face went from pale to shock-white, all the blood draining away. His hand clenched on Walter's.

"...sick..."

Recognizing intense nausea when he saw it, Walter leaped up and ran to the kitchen cupboards he'd rummaged through while unpacking, only having to open and slam two before finding the large bowl he remembered. He'd be damned if he'd clean up the cabin floor, or worse, Krycek himself. Racing back, he pushed the bowl in Krycek's face as Alex tried to roll up onto his side when only his upper body was functioning. Hooking an arm around his back, he helped him turn enough to angle his face downward over the bowl.

He turned his own head to the side as Krycek vomited. An edge of worry crept up his spine. Jeremiah hadn't said anything about vomiting.

Krycek sank back onto the couch, still looking like death warmed over. Which, I guess is a pretty accurate description in this case. Walter pushed the bowl to one side and went for a bottle of water. Using a handkerchief Alex had stuffed in his backpack, he blotted the sweaty forehead.

"Okay?"

"Okay," Alex croaked. "My head hurts."

Definitely not a good sign.

"Complicated. Complicated how?"

"What?" It took Walter a moment to reconnect with his words from before Alex got sick. His words that had triggered Alex getting sick? Who the hell knew. "Oh. Right. Us." There is no us! "I'm sorry, Alex, I know this has to be awful. Listen... um..." Think, Walter, think. "Even though I'm not really supposed to be 'telling' you anything, I'm going to tell you this. All you really need to know, right now, is that I'm here because I want to be." He delivered each word with extra weight, trying for as sincere as possible. "And that you don't need to worry if I'm here." He forced a smile, hating the feeling that he was leading Krycek into a fantasy-land that he himself was very uncomfortable with, but pushing on. "If you remember you respect me, and you remember how you..." go with it just go with it "...feel about me, and you trust me, then you know you can believe me. That you can feel safe, and taken care of, and you don't have to worry about why I'm here no matter what you remember. I know who you are, Alex. I'm not going anywhere."

And I really don't want to examine that statement too closely.

It did the trick. Almost immediately color started creeping back into Krycek's face. His muscles relaxed and the fear leached away. The corner of his mouth even lifted in a half smile. "Why do I get the feeling that whatever our relationship is, wherever we're at with it, that I don't deserve you?"

Guilt twisted like a knife no, more like a fucking sword in Walter's chest. He forced a laugh. "Oh, I wouldn't go that far. Are you okay now? Can you let the memories come and not think too hard about them? I know some of them are going to be extremely disturbing, but you're safe here. Let it come and let it go, and know that none of it can touch you here." He was surprised at the fierce note that made it into his voice. He wondered if, at the end of the day, there was some sort of species imperative that when it came to the horrors of the alien memories crawling up out of Krycek's subconscious, he could actually draw a line in the sand and honestly hold that line for Krycek, as a fellow human.

That is, assuming he's human. I've had my doubts.

Guilt poked him again for the thought, as Krycek's face relaxed into that open, trusting smile he'd worn when he was first coming around. "Thank you, Walter." And for all Krycek's subterfuge, Walter knew his sincerity wasn't faked when he continued. "You wouldn't believe how much that helps." The relief was too overwhelming, his voice still too shaky.

"I'm... glad." Walter stood up and stretched. "I'm going to clean this up." He waved a hand at the bowl. "Rest. Call me if you need me."

"I will. Thank you."

The surety in Alex's voice followed Walter to the door of the cabin and out onto the porch into the chill and thick snow.

He wasn't sure which made his neck prickle more.

***

When Alex could move his upper body comfortably enough to rest on pillows, Walter fed him soup. He seemed to be at some sort of pause in memory recovery, resting comfortably without the wincing and distressed reactions from earlier. On the one hand, Walter wanted him done and over with the whole recovery process, so he could turn him over to his own recognizance. On the other, he appreciated the respite from trying to figure out if something was going wrong, or worrying about how much he should or shouldn't say.

Emotional upset certainly had seemed to trigger physical problems, and reassuring him had addressed them. At the moment, Walter would just as soon have him calm and not puking his guts up, whether or not it meant Krycek was lying there under the extreme delusion that he and Walter were in some sort of complicated love affair.

And really, what the fuck? A relationship? Krycek goes delusional and the first place his head goes is an affair with me?

Oddly, Walter realized he was less surprised that Krycek was gay than he might otherwise have been. In fact, the shock was completely bound up in the direction of Krycek's dubious affections, and underlying it was a complete lack of surprise at the idea of those same affections heading in another direction. Like... Mulder. There had always been something weird between them. Something that crystalized with the realization that Krycek was apparently sexually and emotionally geared toward men.

Sexually anyway. Did the man have emotional capabilities?

The air had always sort of... sizzled around the two of them. It has always vaguely annoyed him. Easy to mistake it for hatred, and maybe it was on Mulder's part.

"Mulder..."

Walter nearly jumped out of his skin. "WHAT?!"

Alex was staring in that unfocused way into the middle distance and seemed completely unaware of Walter's overreaction. "Mulder," he repeated, brow furrowing. "I'm getting this flood of-" He blinked, surprise coloring his face. "Is he okay?" He looked to Walter with clear anxiety. "I think... some kind of danger, really serious-"

"He's fine." Walter nodded, reassuring again. As far as I know. "Don't worry about him. Focus on yourself." Like you've always done so well.

He relaxed minutely, but Walter could see the tension wasn't completely gone. His own tension was much higher. That was downright spooky, no pun intended.

"It's bad. This danger. I can't put my finger on it but I know I was scared to death. So frustrating to know... but not really know. Does he know? Realize he's in danger?"

Walter couldn't keep a short laugh from escaping. "I think he knows he's always in some kind of danger. Whether he pays any attention, that's the problem."

Krycek nodded slowly, as if that was fitting with his returning puzzle pieces. "Right... exactly. That's him," he mumbled.

"You did what you could, Alex," he said, believing that completely. "You were clear about warning him."

"I did?" Krycek looked up again, surprised but obviously relieved. "Okay then. I don't know what it is now, but if I told him when I did know... that's okay then."

"You definitely made sure he knew."

The rest of the tension eased. "Man, I'm so glad you're here." The heartfelt delivery sliced at Walter again.

Clearing his throat he leaned over the fire again. "You cold at all? Need a blanket? There's one upstairs."

"Yeah, actually... the feeling's sort of coming back to my feet. And they're cold."

He beat a hasty retreat to the ladder to the loft, and spent far too long rummaging the blanket off the bed. Why couldn't he just go to sleep and heal up in his sleep? That would be so much easier. Descending, he went to the couch and shook the blanket out over Krycek. Watching him snuggle down under it, he supposed he could have thought to do that earlier. Moving around the cabin, he'd been perfectly warm. Lying still on the couch was probably a little less toasty.

As if prompted by the thought, Alex seemed suddenly sleepy. Between that and the Mulder thing, it was enough to give Walter a chill that the strange injection had passed on something of the alien mind-reading ability, and Alex was picking up brain waves from him or something ridiculous like that. Sure, right. Because you never hear anything ridiculous coming out of these damn alien encounters. Still, common sense reasserted itself and said that the added warmth likely had more to do with Alex's sleepiness.

"Rest." Walter put on his soothing voice again. "If you feel drowsy, go with it. It can only help."

"Mmmm." Alex's eyes drifted closed.

Thank god. Walter debated going upstairs. Exhausted as he felt, though, he was also keyed up enough to render it useless. Instead, he sat down on the floor in front of the fireplace and tried to shut down his thinking, just zone out, staring at the flames.

***

He was jarred out of his fire gazing he wasn't sure how much later by a strange sound from the couch. A mix between a cough and an aborted cry of... something. Pain? Fear?

He pushed off from the floor and headed for the couch, only to freeze halfway.

There on the couch, half sitting up, the blanket falling away from his torso, was absolutely Alex Krycek. Full faculties intact, face a furious mask, eyes like ice just as Walter knew them best. Lips twisted up into a sneer and Alex practically spat the word, "Skinner."

Blinking, shocked at the suddenness of the total transformation, Walter responded in the one way guaranteed to make things worse, "What, no more 'Walter?'"

Krycek made an inarticulate sound of anger and forced himself into a sitting position, trying to drag his legs off the couch, though they obviously weren't responding.

"Alex, wait, you'll hurt yourself." Starting toward the couch, Walter was stopped again by the full force of emotion coming off Krycek as he glared at him.

"The fuck you care," he snarled, succeeding in pushing and yanking his legs off the couch with his arm, his feet hitting the floor with a heavy thunk that sounded painful. Obviously it was, judging by the wince, but that only seemed to make Alex madder.

Walter started forward again.

"Back the fuck off. You fucking bastard. Having fun were you? Listening to me? Trying to pry out all the emotional nooks and crannies? Acting like we were..." Krycek stopped, his face going redder, obviously grappling for words, finally settling on, "-old friends?"

"Now wait just a minute... I didn't do anything to encourage anything you were saying. If anything, I was trying like hell to find some way to shut you up! If you remember everything you were saying, then you should remember I wasn't lying to you-" He stopped, realizing he had NO ground to stand on there.

"Oh no," Krycek's voice escalated to a shout. "No lies at all. 'I want to be here. You're safe with me.' Oh sure, the absolute fucking truth. I can't believe..." he laughed harshly. "But why? Why can't I believe? Why am I surprised you'd be so... so low, so fucking-" he actually sputtered, obviously at a loss for words. "Such a total fucking ASShole as to sit there and... AURRRGH." The strangled scream was pure frustration, anger, and Walter guessed humiliation, if he remembered exactly what he'd been saying and it looked like he did.

"Alright now, stop." Walter started forward again, beginning to actually get worried by the shade of red Alex was turning. "Just stop and calm down before you give yourself an aneurysm. If you remember everything then you ALSO remember this was your damn idea! I didn't want to be sitting here nursing you, holding your head while you puked, listening to all your idiot delusions, but I got cornered into it by you and Smith and YOU chose it. You forced the issue, so don't get pissed at me!"

Krycek was jerking back so hard and fast, trying to move away from Walter's advance, obviously trying to stand up on legs that would not work, that he tipped off the couch, falling and twisting. "FUCK! FUCK FUCK FUCK!" He screamed and pounded the floor with his fist, then suddenly froze, head lifting. "Delusions. Right... of course delusions." He twisted back around and slammed his hand into Walter's chest as Walter bent forward to help him back on the couch.

"Will you... stop it! Stop it, dammit! I'm just trying to help!"

But Krycek seemed on some kind of fully focused tear, not hearing Walter at all. "Get away from me! Of course I was delusional! I had fucking alien goo fucking with my brain! You didn't think for one minute that I was actually-" He groped for words again, "You didn't... believe-"

Walter gripped him around the chest, lifted, and heaved him back onto the couch. "Now stay there!" Walter leaned forward and shouted into his face. "No! No, I didn't believe you were actually fucking in love with me! What are you, completely deranged?! Of course I knew you were delusi-" And it finally hit him, with the force of a lightening bolt.

It wasn't. It wasn't a delusion.

All the little pieces of the last few minutes clicked into place with stunning clarity. The intensity of the anger, the sudden desperate latching onto the word delusion, the immediate shift in the tirade...

"Jesus Christ." He straightened up too fast and took a reflexive step backward, as if he could push away the realization just by getting away physically.

"What? WHAT! Don't look at me like that-" Krycek was screaming full force now, practically shaking the walls.

His brain refused to process the knowledge. He suddenly felt completely exhausted. He recognized himself shutting down and backed up another few steps, feeling the heat of the fire against his legs before he could make himself stop. "I'm going to bed," he said abruptly. "Shut up and lay there and... heal." And without another word he walked past the couch, climbed the ladder, and flung himself on the bed.

"Skinner!" The furious shout followed him into the open loft, but he ignored it completely, and was only marginally surprised when Krycek went completely silent directly afterward.

Bloody fucking hell. The thoughts came barreling in again, and he slammed the door shut with a vengeance. Exhaustion overwhelmed him, and he closed his eyes and let the shut down happen.

***

He woke with a start at a light slap on his face, with what sounded like a clock striking one ringing through his head.

"Hey, Skinner. Wake up." Mulder bent over him, shaking his shoulder. As Walter's eyes opened, Mulder stood. "Man, you sleep like the dead. I didn't think you were ever going to wake up."

Walter stared in stunned silence. As if the fact that Mulder was there at all wasn't weird enough, he was wearing... a bathrobe? A full length white bathrobe that looked as plush as if it came from the Ritz Carleton. And... he was glowing.

What the hell?

"Alright then, let's get this show on the road." Mulder rubbed his hands together.

"Show?" Walter shook his head, trying to jar his brain into place and make sense of the nonsensical.

"The tour." Mulder spread out his hands and struck a pose. "Ta dah... Ghost of Christmas Past, at your service."

"WHAT?" Walter sat full upright in one fast motion, suddenly completely awake. And yet sure enough, Mulder still stood right beside the bed. The bed that was still in the loft of the isolated hunting cabin hidden way the hell out in the Adirondacks. He stood and went to the railing, looked over into the downstairs to where Krycek sat slumped in the corner of the couch right where Walter had left him, his face resting in his hand.

He looked from Mulder to Krycek, then back to Mulder.

"Don't bother," Mulder said casually, leaning over the railing next to him and looking down at Krycek as well, illuminating the entire downstairs with the... flame? that was circling his head. "He can't hear you. Or me. Or see us. This is your tour, not his."

"Okay. So I'm dreaming. Okay then."

"Weeeellll..." Mulder's mouth twisted. "Not... exactly. But hey, if it makes you feel better, sure. Tell yourself that."

"Mulder. Christmas Past? You?"

"Hey, why not?"

"You're JEWISH."

"Well, sure... ethnically. Not religiously. And really, who better? I'm part of your past your past with him anyway." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder in Krycek's general direction. "Which is the point. And, you know... ghost? Kind of appropriate, don't you think? Me, Spooky? Get it?" He grinned and waggled his fingers as if he was casting some kind of spell.

When Walter just stared at him, he sighed. "Okay, fine. Look." He held his arms out to the side again. "I'm standing here talking to you in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, wearing a white velvet bathrobe with my hair on fire. Do you think (a) I actually planned this? (b) your subconscious actually called this up? Or (c) maybe I'm the Ghost of Christmas Past? Embodied in a version you can understand?"

Walter shook his head, rubbing his forehead.

Mulder tossed his hands in the air. "Give me a break! Can you really say this is any weirder or unbelievable than anything else you've experienced with the X-Files?"

Walter paused. "You have a point there."

"Good. Then let's can the disbelief and get down to brass tacks." He pointed at himself. "Ghost of Christmas Past."

"Right. Which makes my line... 'long past?'"

Mulder grinned approvingly, nodding. "Your past." Then he shrugged. "And his. But you know, that's how this works." He laid a hand on Walter's shoulder and snapped his fingers.

And they stood in a kitchen, where a young boy with dark hair sat at the table, writing furiously, only to be interrupted by a large man pushing through the kitchen door. The boy looked up, wide-eyed with fear. The man walked straight for him, already yelling.

Problem was, Walter couldn't understand a word of it. The man was hollering in Russian, and the boy was stammering responses in Russian. He didn't need the physical resemblance of the man to the adult Alex Krycek to tell him what he was seeing.

"Yeah, and you probably don't need a translation, either, do you?" Mulder asked. He lifted his hand and waved it gently. The scene started to fade but not before the man's hand lashed out and the boy's head snapped sideways with the force of the blow.

Walter winced away from the sight, but the world around him was shifting, and another scene materialized. The same boy, the same man, a little older. Two other children in the room, he couldn't tell the ages. A woman sat in a faded chair arguing with the man, who tossed back a drink, then stood and made another.

"Seriously though," Mulder drawled, waggling his fingers again. "You really don't need a lot of this, do you? You can guess. Probably had some inkling already. Let's not beat a dead horse. Bad childhood, abusive parents, wah wah wah. Poor baby. But this is where things get more interesting and a little less... usual, shall we say?"

They stood in what felt like an airplane hangar... huge and echoing. Dark and shadowed. Cold. Walter looked down at his stocking feet and could feel the concrete floor chilling him. Large dark shapes looked like vehicles, or machinery. Low voices reached his ears and he peered through the dimness.

"Don't worry... they can't see us. Come closer," Mulder walked toward the voices until they stood just to the side of three men in heavy coats speaking in hushed voices. Two of the men spoke Russian, the third English... with a crisp English accent. One of the Russian speakers translated.

"He is telling you all of his people will be here. They are strong willed, not like your weak Americans. They pay whatever the price."

"Yes, well, the Americans came through." The Englishman gave a thin smile and shrugged.

The translator passed the words on to the Russian, who snorted and looked at his watch. "They come," he said suddenly in thickly accented English.

And come they did. The screech of a door opening was followed by a wash of moonlight, and then men filing in from the shadows. They were silent. Each one walked with a child, somewhere between the ages of 8 and 12, by Walter's best guess. Some of the men held the child's hand. Some looked visibly distraught, others stony. Walter's eyes scanned the widening circle, knowing exactly what to look for. And sure enough, there he was the man and the boy. Krycek, and his father.

The Russian man was calling names. A truck engine started behind them, and Walter realized with a start that there were two additional men sitting in the cab of a tractor trailer parked just behind the men. The driver stayed inside, but the passenger climbed out and walked to the back, opening the back door, lowering a small ladder.

As a name was called, a man would step forward, bring his child with him to the truck. The Englishman moved to stand beside the open trailer door, his eyes moving from child to child, sharp and assessing. The truck passenger helped each child climb the ladder and ushered him or her into the body of the trailer.

Few of the children spoke. Those that did were the younger ones, and the little voices pierced Walter even though he couldn't understand the words.

"Arntzen, Vasily."

That name... Walter turned and was unsurprised to see the man he now knew to be Krycek's father stepping forward, pushing the young Alex before him. Alex stared back at the Englishman and ignored the outstretched hand, climbing the ladder himself.

He didn't look back at his father once as he disappeared into the dark of the trailer.

The last child loaded, the truck door ground closed. But his surroundings were already wavering, and Mulder was speaking.

"A Consortium child. Did you know that one? Had you guessed? Handed up on a silver tray just like Samantha."

They stood in a field and for a moment Walter thought it was deserted. It was barren and dry, the grass yellowed and dead. He looked around and opened his mouth to ask, when the sound of running footsteps made him whirl. A small cadre of teenage boys came into view, all in black sweat pants and t-shirts, running at a breakneck pace.

"Some of the Consortium children went directly to the aliens. Others to the human scientists, and some... into training."

"Training," Walter repeated, watching the faces of the boys as they streaked past. Plain terror was showing through in a few. Others, a teenaged Krycek among them, just looked detached and determined. Those boys tended to be closer toward the front of the pack. Even as he took in the difference, an odd baying entered his awareness. Dogs? "Jesus Christ," Walter breathed as a pack a full on pack of Rottweilers materialized behind the boys.

"He's not really my bailiwick, old boy." Mulder said cheerfully. No, the Ghost of Christmas Past, Walter corrected himself. While he'd seemed perfectly Mulderesque in the cabin, each step of their tour took him further out of 'character' and more into the realm of an actual spirit.

Pushing that disturbing thought aside, he stared at the dogs as they barreled toward the boys. "Dogs." He looked at the Ghost. "Trained dogs?"

"Trained attack dogs, yes."

The dogs sailed past, all muscle and predatory grace, looking every inch the descendants of wolves, despite the cosmetic differences. Walter couldn't help himself from backing up a step, even knowing they were insubstantial. As if to prove the point, a dog swerved to pass the one in front of it, and ran right through him. "They send trained attack dogs after their own... 'recruits.'"

"Survival of the fittest truly does work best when it's honestly about survival, Walter."

"If they actually let the dogs at the stragglers, it seems more like a stupid waste of manpower to me." He hardened his tone to match the Ghost's breezy delivery.

"But think of the valuable lesson to the survivors!"

Walter gave the Ghost a hard look.

The Ghost laughed. "Oh, don't fret so. The boys get a considerable head start. And if someone is a bit too slow... well, they do call off the dogs. The boys heal stronger and better. Most of them. As long as they don't get any truly unlucky bites. You know, to the throat, let's say. But the dogs are trained to bring down an intruder, and the boys are trained how to respond to an animal attack. If they don't protect themselves well enough..."

The Ghost shrugged.

Walter shook his head. "I knew these people were fucking insane but... what am I saying. I honestly don't know why I'm surprised. So tell me, since you know what's going on, in addition to the claustrophobia does he have a pathological fear of dogs?"

The Ghost shook its head. "Oh no. Not at all. He quite likes animals, in fact. Took care of horses for some time on one assignment and thoroughly enjoyed it. Even dogs. Did some training with the Consortium dogs when he moved on from this level. Partial to cats, he likes the solitary predator nature better than the pack dynamic. But simply enjoys animals. In case you hadn't noticed, he is highly intelligent. He always kept the dogs in perspective, as separate from the people handling them. No, it's people he's pathological about. You humans. Oh, here though," it waved its hand once through the air and they zoomed in on the boys again, the dogs drawing closer behind them. "This is the interesting bit." It extended an arm around Walter's shoulders, pulled him closer, and pointed.

The boys were coming up on a wall about five feet high, wooden, positioned in the middle of the field much like the military obstacles Walter remembered from basic training, although it ran far wider. He supposed because of the higher likelihood of a teenage boy running for his life from a pack of dogs taking the immediate obvious option of going around the obstacle, versus military recruits who had more investment in getting over the obstacle and less abject terror driving them.

As they watched, the first line of boys reached the wall and leaped at it without breaking stride, some flying over it with a natural athleticism, others working at it but getting over with little trouble. Krycek hit near the middle of that pack not exactly sailing over, but hauling himself up and over methodically enough to demonstrate a practiced skill and repeated effort.

The painful sight was the second surge, the boys who were a little slower, a little less athletic, a little or a lot more terrified. In a few, the terror worked its charm and propelled them scrambling and grappling over the fence. A few more those with less fear who obviously just struggled physically worked their way over in painful flops and struggles, followed by falls down the other side.

And two who hit the wall with obviously no hope of getting themselves over, no ability to launch themselves and use upper body strength to propel them the rest of the way. The sight of them gasping and struggling in terror as the dogs drew near, tugging on the fence in a futile effort to drag themselves up and over, made Walter sick, made him start forward as if he could actually do something.

The sight of one of the first pack turning and vaulting back over the wall sent a wave of relief through Walter, even knowing it was all a mirage that had happened long ago. It didn't click until the boy did so that the rest of them had kept running he must have purposely lagged, waiting to see if they all went over.

Given the tour he was getting, part of Walter was less than surprised that it was Krycek who was now lifting the first boy at the hips and pushing him forward until he toppled over the wall like the others. By the time Krycek turned to the second, he was already grabbing Krycek's shoulder, using the leverage of Krycek's bracing strength to get his upper body over. Krycek still had to boost his legs, taking precious seconds as the dogs closed in. Krycek grabbed the fence himself and braced a foot against it. Without the momentum of the running launch, it took him longer to lift and push, and one of the dogs leaped at his foot, teeth barely missing. This time Krycek stumbled in his landing, but both boys had stayed and reached to steady him. He righted himself and the three of them jogged off together, Krycek obviously pacing himself slower to match the abilities of the other two.

"How about that. Putting himself in harm's way. Maybe there's more of a history with that than not. And more-" With another finger's motion they zoomed again, still the same field, just further along the course. The end of it, Walter realized, all the boys standing in a group, huffing and catching their breath in front of a tall blonde man with a stopwatch. "Look at that," the Ghost murmured. "They were being clocked. Not only risking the dogs, but ruined his own time."

As Krycek and the two boys jogged up. The blonde man clicked the stop watch one last time, snapped out the time to a man standing beside him with a clipboard, and glared at the trio.

"What the hell was that, Arntzen?"

Krycek blinked, his face bland. "Sir?"

"Did he have information you needed?"

"No, sir."

"Was he in danger of falling into enemy hands?"

Krycek paused. "Yes, actually."

The man's face got angrier. "This is not one of those exercises. You know damn well the dogs do not qualify as enemy hands."

"But if you think about it," Krycek offered, "you have to assume the dogs were guarding something, so getting caught by the dogs would be falling into enemy hands eventually. Somebody would come to get him sooner or later."

The man's face flushed almost purple. His hand lashed out and backhanded Krycek hard enough that he stumbled backwards. "Did I ask you to think for yourself?" he shouted, "When I want you to think I'll TELL you to think. You know what this exercise is, you know the rules, you take care of yourself and you DO NOT STOP TO HELP."

The Ghost cleared its throat. "Hm. Almost sounds like he's been trained to look out for number one. From a very young age."

Walter rolled his eyes, and though it wasn't a question, answered anyway. "Yes, I got that bit."

Regaining his footing, Krycek faced off with the man again. "I never know when you're going to change the rules, SIR."

The next strike knocked him off his feet, splitting his lip.

A new voice came from behind the blonde man, startlingly familiar, then Walter wondered why he was surprised. The scent of cigarette smoke met his nose as he turned.

"Watch the face on that one, Mr. Marks. That face has future use, I'm quite sure." A somewhat younger Spender dropped his cigarette and stepped on it. As he had so often, Walter watched Spender immediately take the pack out of the inside of his suit coat, put another in his mouth, and light it up.

Marks regained a semblance of control and nodded, face still tight. "Yes sir."

"And he has a point, after all." Spender walked forward, looking down at Alex slumped on the ground, holding the back of his hand to his bleeding lip. "We do change the rules." He turned and walked back. "Do as you see fit, Mr. Marks. Just watch the face, please. Remember to always assess for all assets at all times." From under his arm Spender took a long, thin, flat red box with a gold elastic tied around it, and handed it to the man. "Oh, and this is for you."

Marks took it and nodded. "Thank you, sir."

Spender walked off without another word. Marks glared down at Krycek for another long moment, then waved a hand at the group. "Get inside, the lot of you. Next exercise in 15 minutes." He stalked away.

The main group headed after him. The two boys Alex had helped both stayed and reached down to give him a hand off the ground.

"Sorry, Alex. You shouldn't-"

"Ehn. My choice, not your fault, remember?"

The Ghost spoke close to his ear. "Must be it's happened before. But enough of this." The Ghost waved one of Mulder's long-fingered hands, and they were standing in the hallway of a plush office building. "Nothing much changes over the years. More of the same. Over and over and over again. They know how to train their people really drill it into their heads." The Ghost glanced to the right and Walter saw Krycek as he'd first met him striding down the hall, suit and tie, smooth hair and smoother face.

He passed by close enough to touch, if he hadn't been a shadow of the past, knocked once then opened the door to Walter's left and walked into an office. As the door closed behind Alex, Walter found himself inside the office, standing beside a large desk. Cigarette smoke hung thick in the air.

"Alex. Excellent." Spender glanced at his watch and nodded. "Right on time. Sit." He sent a file sliding across the desk and Alex caught it before he sat.

Walter moved to peer over his shoulder and saw a picture of Mulder clipped to a sheaf of papers. As Krycek rifled through the folder, a second clip of papers, with a picture of Scully on top.

"Fox Mulder. Problematic, all around pain in the ass, and extremely important."

"Why?"

"Don't worry about the whys. The point is to be careful. He's to be watched, followed, tracked, reported on and kept out of direct danger as much as possible. It's not always possible, and I recognize that. He's foolhardy. Thinks he's immortal." Spender snorted, then laughed, and Walter wondered if he knew back then that Mulder could in fact literally rise up from the grave. "If he's getting too close to important areas, distract him. He can be hurt, but not killed, are we clear?"

Krycek shrugged and nodded. "Clear."

"That's very important."

"I hear that. I'm clear. Keep him as safe as I can and definitely don't kill him." Alex's tone was dry, but still respectful. Remembering the way Alex had stressed respect when he'd still been amnesiac, Walter wondered if it was real or an act. Wondered if there had been a time when Alex honestly respected Spender.

"Don't get cute. This is serious. You've achieved an important assignment. Don't fuck it up. Now, Dana Scully. We'd like to assess how much of a problem she might be. She hasn't worked out exactly as planned."

Krycek nodded again, skimming the sheets on her.

"Now, unfortunately you'll be under another pain in the ass AD Walter Skinner." A second file slid across the desk, and Walter was suddenly in the original position the Ghost has brought them to, where he had an unobstructed view of Alex's face. Spender was still speaking, "-little too noble for his own good, but he knows the lay of the land." He stood up and turned to look out his window. "We can only push him so far, so we need to tread carefully. Your main goal as far as he's concerned is to be a respectful, bright, talented, eager new agent and get on his good side. You don't mind being a basement-dweller... you're just excited to be working with Mulder. Clear? Don't get between him and Mulder I'm perfectly happy to keep the two of them at odds with each other as much as possible. If push comes to shove, back Mulder and-"

As Spender was rattling on, Alex had leaned forward and picked up the folder. He opened it and Walter watched an odd change come over Alex's face. He couldn't quite read it-

The Ghost leaned into Walter's shoulder and spoke into his ear. "A little surprise, a flare of interest... I must say, it's an excellent picture of you, Walter. And there's just something about you, something that gives him pause. Between the picture and the history. Intrigues him, makes him want to meet you. Especially since Spender called you a pain in the ass. And yes, this is really what's going on, I'm not making this up."

Walter cleared his throat. "If you can tell things like that, tell me, does he actually have some kind of respect for Spender? He acted like-"

The Ghost laughed. "Acted being the operative word. No, there was a time, an impressionable time, where Spender... well, made an impression. A big one. He's a powerful man and he wields it freely. Power is indeed seductive, as I'm sure you can relate."

Walter nodded. "Yes, I get it."

"But no, that time is past by this point. Now he sees only the power, respects only the power. Not the man. Still, Mr. Spender's view of the world is yet firmly imprinted. It'll be a bit longer before he realizes quite how far out of line with reality it is. Your Agent Mulder has much to do with that. And you."

"Me?" Walter turned and looked at him, and was almost startled to see Mulder's face under the glow. At this point the Ghost was even referring to Mulder in the third person.

"You," the Ghost confirmed, either not noticing or simply not reacting to Walter's start. It waved its hand in the familiar gesture and they were in the Hoover. At his office, Krycek standing outside it, smoothing his hair, looking for all the world like he was nervous. "He is," the Ghost said mildly. "He's almost perfected the art of not showing any smidgen of real emotion but at this point there are still gaps. He hasn't gone completely through the tempering fire yet, that turns him into nothing but bone and steel. There's humanity clinging on for dear life, wrapping itself around those bones and screaming to be let out."

Krycek cleared his throat, glanced around, and checked his reflection in the glass of the office window, backed by blinds. Straightened his tie, straightened his jacket. Pulled his lips back off his teeth, peered at them, then smiled. Deep breath. Knocked and stepped inside, striding over to Kim's desk with a sudden bouncy air, drawn down over his nerves like a shroud. "Agent Alex Krycek for AD Skinner, please." Even his voice had that shiny young quality.

"You'll remember that meeting of course," the Ghost said, already waving its hand. "Let's take a look at this..."

Krycek holding a gun on the sleepless soldier, seeing a gun, not a Bible.

"Yes, really seeing a gun," the Ghost murmured.

Firing, then racing forward, dropping to his knees, looking for the gun. It had to be there. Where was it? Scrambling for it... no, impossible, he had not just killed someone holding a Bible. He hadn't.

"There, you've got the hang of it now. You're picking it up on your own, yes?"

"Yes," Walter managed, fighting back the surge of nausea and distress radiating off Krycek, resonating down his own nerves.

"First actual kill." The Ghost nodded thoughtfully. "He thought it would be different. He thought he'd be able to tell if it was a clean kill or a dirty kill. He was thinking of death that way back then. Clean kill deserved, or self-defense, or protecting another. A clean mission. Dirty an assignment that he didn't necessarily agree with, a target he didn't deem necessary. A situation that at this point he still wasn't sure how he'd respond to. Now, of course... divisions have melted away in so many ways. Now it's just a kill. It's all just a kill. Now how about this-"

The Hoover again, his office him behind his desk talking kindly to an apparently stricken Alex Krycek, as he had talked to so many young agents, talking them through their first kills.

And Walter now knew it was at least partially genuine. He'd always wondered, afterward. But he could feel it, feel the disquiet, the helpless anger, the guilt as clearly as he could feel that Krycek was also playing it up, appearing much more broken up than he truly was.

"Yes, they'd done quite the job of stripping the humanity away, even that early," the Ghost agreed. "But keep listening. Keep feeling."

As he watched himself talk he felt the shift occur in Alex, felt him slide away from guilt over the kill, away from his careful performance, and begin to focus more on Walter's words. Felt the warm glow start up in the aching chest, at the realization that Walter wasn't just mouthing words, that he was genuine and actually cared.

"Talk about making an impression," the Ghost murmured as the guilt over the death shifted clearly to guilt at lying to Walter, at being someone he wasn't. "Funny, really. Somewhere in here, at some unnamable moment, things could have changed. Drastically."

"Shit." Some small part of him had always wondered that, too. Who had fucked up, at just the wrong time-

"No one's fault, Walter. Don't do that to yourself. It was everything, everyone, and no one. No one reached that little extra distance, no one showed that little bit of vulnerability that might have called up a response in another. Everyone was too distrustful for good reason. None of you had any reason to be trusting, even of each other. And there were always more than enough stumbling blocks, in the way of people, of misunderstandings, of bad timing. Bad decisions." The Ghost shook its head. "No, I don't say it to make you feel guilty, or rake yourself over the coals. I say it to let you know that it's there, because you're seeing more, feeling more, but I don't think you're seeing quite that far yet. So I'm showing you it's there, inside him. It was there then, and it is there now. You couldn't see it then, and no one could show it to you. Now, someone is showing it to you."

"But everything that happened-"

"Yes, I know. Everything that happened after." The Ghost looked grieved. "What a hideous mess. And we just don't have all night. My siblings would just kill me." It paused, and laughed. "Get it? Kill me. So, what say we put the show on fast forward? I think I've made my essential point, and everything can build from there. Hold on." The Ghost extended a fold of its white robe, and Walter grasped it.

The moment he touched the lush softness of what might look like a bathrobe but felt like the richest satin, the world started moving. Fast. Images, feelings, pictures, words, voices, smells everything flew at him like a kaleidoscope, yet he could feel his brain absorbing it, so it became encoded knowledge even as it passed before his eyes.

He watched Alex stare down at an ashtray full of cigarettes with a napkin in hand ready to clean it out, hesitate, and then close it again, his internal conflict at lying to Mulder and Walter playing harmony in the background.

Watched Alex being paired with loose canon Luis Cardinale, and felt his distaste for the psychopathic nature of the other man.

"I'll take care of Skinner, Krycek. Don't get in my way."

Yet when the time came, in the stairwell, Krycek did get in the way. And afterward, Cardinale railing at him for depriving him of his kill, he just sneered at the man, dodged a punch, and walked away.

Watched Alex not get in Luis' way with Melissa Scully. No personal investment in this individual, and caught with no way to bungle the job without possibly costing his own position, his own safety, possibly even his own life.

After all... look out for number one. At all costs.

Watched Alex not only not get in the way, but lift his hand and fire with steady aim and accuracy at Bill Mulder. Felt Alex's burning contempt for the man he saw as another Consortium drone. Bought and paid for, who had handed over his offspring just like all the other bastards.

Felt how this second kill was so much easier than the first. Clean kill.

The images flew faster and harder, overwhelming emotions tumbled with them, until Walter felt like he was being smacked over and over. It felt as though he and the Ghost were moving, like he could feel wind moving around them, but all he could see was the unfolding scenes and all he could do was accept the battering of emotions that came with them.

Alex's confusion, anger, self-hatred that he couldn't kick his feelings for Skinner. His failed attempts to take that anger out on Skinner himself, and the successful attempts that just left him feeling so much worse.

The isolation. The desolation. The slow walling off, brick by brick, of that lingering, clinging humanity.

Alex's crazy rollercoaster experience of the Consortium spun past and Walter watched as the more Alex found out about the inner workings all the way up the ranks, the more disgusted he became. The more incredulous he became, of the mismanagement and stupid blunders, the ridiculous decisions. The deals with the aliens, the horror of the oil, the experiments.

The slow, steady freezing of the tiny flow of emotion, compassion, fighting to break through.

The strange sparking relationship with Mulder flooded Walter with all of the confused feelings it raised in Alex, the push-pull attraction, the grudging respect coupled with the moments of head-banging frustration at the man's idiocy. The loss of respect, the regaining of it. The inexplicable need to return over and over to the abuse and judgment. It left Walter awash with Alex's feelings of the tearing internal conundrum that somehow, in a way he didn't understand, Mulder made him want to be a better man.

Even though Alex didn't believe himself capable, and continued to work overtime to prove to himself that he wasn't. So he didn't need to bother trying.

Walter could barely breathe as the sensation of racing into a strengthening wind coupled with Alex's steadily rising, burning desire to come out on top. To beat the Consortium at their own game, to rise in the ranks and fuck the aliens over and all the old men he hated, and maybe even the one old man he didn't hate.

He felt the ache of all the lonely planning and scheming. The constant search for information. An edge. Breaking codes, untangling webs, hacking and bugging and listening and reading. Picking away at puzzles until his eyes were crossing and his mind was reeling. Until he could hardly keep his eyes open. Until he was unable to sleep.

Searching, always searching. For something to grab hold of and use as one more rung in the ladder to a higher position, to a place where he was either out of their reach, or able to dictate downward, or at least kick mud down into their faces, or... sometimes he didn't even know. He just knew he had to keep climbing.

The hardening, deadening suspicion of everyone and everything.

Yet, through it all, his deep, persistent belief held stubbornly on despite all he'd seen and done and believed about human nature, and even when everything pointed to the contrary that Walter Skinner was holding out against the Consortium influence. Like Walter was some shining, even if slightly-tarnished, light of strength and integrity in a world of nothing but muck. Never-ending, sucking, smothering, swallowing muck.

Walter felt the way that belief dug into Alex like claws, sinking into him right down to his bones, and hurting, aching, just as much. He could feel how that ache gently fanned the guttering flame that Alex told himself on a regular basis didn't exist.

All the hotels, the airports, the trains, slapped Walter in the face one after the other, with a dousing coldness. Alex sitting on hundreds of look-alike bedspreads in a thousand cookie cutter rooms from the Holiday Inn to ritzy suites. Always the same no matter the city, the country, the language.

Always the same. Frozen. Emotionless. Dead inside.

Clean the guns and order room service.

Walter wanted to claw at his own chest, just to beat some life into it, to try to get rid of the horrific, hollow, echoing sensation.

Then the orders to kill Walter came down, and Walter felt Alex's sudden firm self-knowledge that it simply wasn't going to happen. He would not allow it.

Walter felt the single drop of melt-water of emotion that fell and hit in the center of the emptiness, scorching like acid.

Walter's head pounded with Alex's certainly that the time had come for him to declare full out public war on his old employers in a way they couldn't ignore, and stake a claim on Walter for himself. If Walter was moving on anyone's chessboard, it was going to be his.

The scalding drop generated steam, and the void filled with Alex's fear and his concomitant need to hide the vulnerability represented by his claim on Walter. Walter choked on Alex's driving fear of his old colleagues figuring out the root of his feelings, and the additional danger that would bring down on Walter's head should someone connect the dots correctly.

What better way to demonstrate how little he truly cared about Walter Skinner as anything but a tool than to kill him. To hold him hostage with the little machines in his blood.

"ENOUGH." He couldn't take any more of this, it was overwhelming, too confusing, too damn much and unfixable. No way out. Too much wasted time and wasted opportunity and if only's. The sickening full out tragedy of it rolled over him. He whirled on the Ghost. "No more... I'm DONE. Done, done-"

The grinning Ghost was holding out the conical hat that until now Walter hadn't noticed at all. It bent forward at the waist in an exaggerated bow and waved a hand up at the nimbus around its head. "Snuff away, old boy! What else is the light of truth for than to be doused when it gets to be too much to bear..."

Walter lifted the hat and brought it down full force on the Ghost's head, blocking the fiery white glow, pressed ever harder downward as the light leached out around the bottom of the cap, carrying the fading laughter of the Ghost with it.

Came to sitting in the bed, pillow balled in his hands, pushing it down into the mattress for all he was worth.

He sat back and caught his breath. Holy fuck. He wasn't going to be so stupid as to ignore the intensity of the experience, but he did honestly have to consider the possibility it was some bizarre dream brought on by-

-the nonexistent clock tolling two. He groaned at the sudden bright, cheery, colorful light flooding upstairs from the center of the cabin.

The curious thought of which individual from his life would embody the Present drew him off the bed and over to the railing. Looking down, he almost choked in disbelief.

A polite voice called out, "Ah, I believe my traditional line is something tothe effect of 'Come in and know me better?' 'Man?' Not sure if that last is meant to be part of the command, or if it is one of those human colloquialisms? I'm rather new to all this, you know."

An epic Jeremiah Smith sat on a huge chair, wearing voluminous green velvet robes that looked nothing like a bathrobe. Trimmed all in snow white fur and draped with a rich red belt and stole, it looked perfectly at home among the bizarre cornucopia of food and gifts that always seemed to accompany the Ghost of Christmas Present, spilling over the arms of the chair and piling at Jeremiah's scratch that, the Ghost's feet.

Climbing down the ladder he looked over to the couch where Krycek still sat, exactly as he had when Walter had departed with Christmas Past, complete with head in hand.

"Yes, he's still unable to experience us."

Walter nodded, then turned to look up, and up, at the Ghost. "Jeremiah Smith, eh? And you can stop trying for his mannerisms and tone. I know you're just... um, embodying in a form I'll understand, if I caught it right."

"Indeed." Jeremiah beamed happily as he climbed out of his chair and shrank to man-size. Large man-size, but still basically man-sized. His voice deepened and picked up a resonant quality that sounded odd from Jeremiah. "Good show. This Smith fellow is entirely too-" Smith's hand made a so-so motion, the green velvet sleeve swaying. "Too flat. No emotion. Christmas is nothing if not laden with emotion."

"You know, come to think of it, Muld- ah, Christmas Past, didn't show me much about Christmas at all. It was just... past."

"Mmm, wonder why that might be." Christmas Present looked at him expectantly.

Walter had no idea what the man... Ghost... was after. He looked back at the Ghost just as expectantly.

The Ghost sighed, and the expression it now wore fit Jeremiah's face perfectly tired exasperation with humans. Walter had seen that enough in talking to the alien healer. "You're a smart boy, Walter, I know you are. If my colleague the Ghost of Christmas Past, let me stress was displaying Alex's past to you, yet did not show you any actual 'Christmases past,' what might that mean?" He leaned forward, fingers crooking and waggling as if trying to coax the answer. "Eh? Eh? You can do it!"

"Showing me Alex's past without any Christmases. Would probably mean... that there were... no Christmases in his past."

"EXACTLY!" The Ghost beamed. "In fact, my colleague did show you past Christmases. You just didn't notice because... it was just another day. It always is to Alex. Perhaps more irritating because the airports are crowded and so many restaurants are closed, but otherwise unremarkable."

"The Consortium doesn't take holidays," Walter hazarded.

"The Consortium never sleeps, and they don't give holiday pay. But they recognize holidays just like anyone else." Christmas Present shrugged shoulders that were somewhat broader than Jeremiah's, making his robe ripple the entire length. "It's just another day to Alex."

Walter rubbed his eyes tiredly, disliking the empathy continuing to grow inside him. "Got it. Okay, so let's get on with it. Why is Jeremiah Smith my Christmas Present?"

"Because you can't get more present than me. I'm the last person you talked to besides Alex."

"Stop referring to yourself as him. We've already established you're not, you're just manifesting as him, so I can process you better, or something."

"Ah, right! Thanks for the reminder. We're supposed to be careful about staying in character if we're appearing to someone who we expect to be resistant. We've found over the years that appearing as someone from our assignment's own life helps steamroll the resistance. You'd be surprised how often we need to do it now. It's gotten so it's always our first resort." Christmas Present heaved a sigh. "Modern humans. No respect for the spirit world, I tell you. Might believe a visitation from Uncle George, but bring in a legitimate spirit in its own manifestation, and we're nothing but a dream. Or a drug-induced hallucination. Anyway, it's simple really Jeremiah is your Present link to Alex, and Alex's Present link with you." The Ghost smiled. "He's also a delightful fellow. Done part of our work for us."

"Oh really?"

"What, you think he didn't know what that injection of life was going to do to our boy here? He knew exactly what order 'memories' would come back in, based on strength of emotional association." The Ghost leaned in, eyes twinkling. "And yes, you can think back on how quickly he remembered you, and how long it took him to remember Mr. Mulder, and take reassurance in that fact." The Ghost winked.

Walter flushed. It actually had occurred to him...

"Of course it did. Why do you think we're HERE? Honestly. Humans. Need to be knocked upside the head on a regular basis, even when we're actively helping. So... his Present." The Ghost twirled its fingers in the air.

They stood... surprise, surprise... in a hotel room. Granted, a rather swanky looking hotel room, but it had the same old sterile, impersonal ambiance of all hotel rooms everywhere. Walter looked around, but they seemed to be alone.

"Where is he?"

"Give it a minute. You'd think you were the one on a deadline," the Ghost muttered. "My colleague ate into MY time, you realize. Always does, cheeky bastard. And our other sibling brooks no delay."

Just then the door opened and Krycek walked in, tossing the plastic key card beside the television. A hotel employee carried in two suitcases Walter recognized, and set them on the floor. Krycek absently handed the man some bills, and watched him leave. He dropped the backpack that Walter also recognized off his shoulder onto the desk. He shrugged out of his coat, then kept right on disrobing, sweater off over the head and down the prosthesis, followed by t-shirt pulling out of jeans and lifting-

Okay... not good. While watching Alex Krycek taking off his clothes was something Walter was starting to approach being able to possibly admit might be somewhere near the top of a list in his head entitled "Unlikely Things to Enjoy in the Highly Unusual Event They Ever Actually Happen"... not like this.

The corollary had always been that Alex had known Walter was in the room at the time.

"Ah, is this entirely necessary?" Walter turned to the Ghost uncomfortably. "I don't like this... I feel like a voyeur."

The Ghost raised Jeremiah's eyebrows. "Now? NOW you feel like a voyeur? After rifling through his emotional past like a deck of cards?"

"Hey, I didn't ask for the show and tell! Your sibling forced it on me!"

The Ghost grinned. "We never force. And relax. He's just getting comfortable. Look." The Ghost nodded at Alex and Walter hesitated, then looked back.

Alex was in the process of unbuckling straps and easing the arm off, walking across the room to set it down in the obligatory uncomfortable stuffed chair with shiny stain resistant upholstery, before sitting heavily on the bed and rubbing the stump of his left arm and the marks the straps had left in the skin over his shoulder and across his chest.

Walter winced, and this time looked away due to an entirely different type of discomfort.

"If he can live with, surely the least you can do is look at it," the Ghost said, only the barest edge of judgment coloring its tone.

Walter cleared his throat, glared at the Ghost, and redirected his gaze back to Alex.

He looked exhausted. And possibly in pain, though it was always hard to tell with Krycek.

"The arm is never fully pain free. Wearing the prosthesis is, as he would say, 'a pain in the ass and uncomfortable as all hell.' As he would also say, he has 'a bitch of a headache.' Still."

"Still? How long is this past tonight?"

The Ghost looked at Walter as if he was truly dense. "You really don't seem to have grasped the CHRISTMAS part of this whole visitation, have you?"

Walter sighed, feeling as stupid as the Ghost obviously thought he was. Of course. If this was Christmas Present, it was obviously this Christmas. Making it three days from today. "Sorry," he muttered. Then he whistled softly. "Three days and still a bad headache?"

The Ghost shrugged with that same unconcerned air the Ghost of Christmas Past had shown about the horror show with the Rottweilers. "Bullets hurt. The alien healing is good, but it had much to contend with this time. Brains are funny things."

Alex tilted back, falling flat to the cover and sighing deeply. Barely seconds later his eyes opened and he pushed himself upright, looking resigned. Getting off the bed, Walter couldn't help but let his eyes skim down over Alex's body, noting that in those fantasies he didn't have, he was definitely in fantasyland. It was a sadly battered body, even aside from the arm. Scarred and lopsided, not at all the smoothly muscled torso Walter had imagined under those suits in the early days.

In those fantasies he definitely didn't have.

No six-pack abdomen, no finely developed pecs accenting pert nipples, no well-defined broad shoulders narrowing down to slim hips. Just an everyday body that obviously didn't work behind a desk, but also obviously didn't waste money on a gym membership to maintain its strength and power.

And as an aside, had been through the wringer. And back through it from the other direction, then wrung one more time.

The appearance obviously didn't concern Alex much... just the functionality.

Walter wondered if Alex had ever fit the porn-flick, gym bunny image that had cavorted in those non-existent fantasies. Oh come on, cavorted? Hardly. Run rampant, perhaps. The image of Spender standing over Alex, commenting on the usefulness of a face like that, came back to him. Likely Alex had been in better shape at that point... no doubt he'd been using his body to best advantage along with all his other tools. Before he'd been maimed.

Alex turned away to grip the headboard to balance himself as he heeled off his boots, and Walter noted the one asset that he hadn't dreamed up, that had definitely been confirmed the day he'd started seeing Alex mainly in jeans instead of suits.

That ass was fucking perfect.

Alex dug for his phone in his pocket, pulling the jeans tighter in back, nicely accenting Walter's assessment, and Walter couldn't control a grin. Those forever legs weren't bad either. Walter let his eyes slide down over the long slim length of leg before climbing inexorably back up to the firm, full swell of perfect. fucking. ass.

Calling someone who was obviously on speed dial, Alex went to the desk and started digging into his backpack, the phone pressed between his shoulder and cheek.

"Hey. Yeah, me. What's the word? Yes, I know it's fucking Christmas, who gives a fuck. Do you really think the aliens care? Have you ever read any military history? And all the times somebody assumes the other side won't do anything because 'oh, oh, it's Christmas' and takes a nice, stupid break to get drunk and gives everyone a holiday and goes to skeleton crew, and the enemy not being fucking idiots uses the obviously perfect opportunity to ATTACK?"

Walter couldn't control the laugh that bubbled up. The Ghost of Christmas Present gave him an approving look and smiled as well. Crissakes, I only laughed. I didn't declare everlasting respect and affection.

"Need I remind you we now have a fucking INFANT to watch out for, too? Yeah, okay. Thank you. Yeah, no... don't worry about it. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to snap. Hang on." He'd finally produced a headset from the bag and while Walter blinked in surprise at the sound of Krycek apologizing, Alex put the phone on the desk, connected the head set, and sat in the chair, pulling the bag over flat and sliding a laptop out that looked as battered as he did. "No, seriously. I always tell myself I need to remember how ingrained this holiday is. That just because it means nothing to me doesn't make the rest of you conform to my work schedule." He laughed, opening the laptop and powering up. "That's true. I'm going to start recruiting with that in mind. Yeah, I always say next year I'll remember and do better and not get so pissy with people. I never do. I think I'm on edge this year 'cause of the damn baby.

"Well, yes, as a matter of fact I've got a RAGING FUCKING HEADACHE." He clicked through into an internet connection and started studying what looked like maps, zooming in and out. He dug a small notebook out of the backpack and made a notation now and again.

"No, seriously, thanks for asking. Sometimes it's worse than others. Today it's bad.

"Nah, there's only so much They can do. Brains are complicated."

Walter glanced at the Ghost, who grinned at him.

"Jeremiah says it should be fine now. Says I'm fine, don't need to hold back or worry about it. I believe him. Some mild muscle aches, and it fucks with the arm a little the phantoms are bugging me more. Strange dreams, but what else is new there. He says all that's normal nothing to worry about, makes sense, the brain's connected to everything that's why it's so complicated. Aside from the STABBING ICEPICK pain in my head, I feel fine." After a moment he laughed.

"No, actually I mean it. I feel like all the bits and pieces are back where they're supposed to be. Nothing rattling around up there." He hit a few keys and leaned back in the chair, watching the screen.

"Well... true. But Jeremiah thinks so too. He knows me pretty damn well... better than anybody else I'd say.

"Well... that's true too, I suppose. Fine. You can assess me and see what YOU think next week. Can we get on with business?

"Yeah, exactly. It's such a huge complication. Babies are just so... bloody irritating in so many ways. So damn vulnerable." He paused to listen.

"Yeah? Have you seen it yet? Did the poor thing get his nose? Yeah, I guess it would be too early to tell. We can live in hope. I still say she should have gone to Skinner. You wanna talk good genes.

"Genes, asshole. G-e-n-e-s, not j-e-a-n-s.

"No, holing up in a cabin did not break the ice." His voice made it clear he was mimicking someone. "Will you fucking quit? How many times do I have to tell you it's a non-starter? I. Killed. Him.

"Bringing him back doesn't take it all away. And what if I'd gotten held up and hadn't been able to be at the hospital and they'd fucking operated and he'd lost his arms? They were gonna take BOTH. What a nightmare, JESUS Christ...

"Yeah, yeah, it's been secularized, what can I say.

"No, Jeremiah's window is actually pretty narrow. We're not all Mulder, who can wait indefinitely and still get resurrected like a goddamn Disney princess waiting for a kiss.

"Yep, I agree. Much better. And if it'd been a girl 'stead of a boy, wouldn't have even had to worry about the baldness. Hey, no problem from my end." Krycek's laugh had a throaty edge to it that made Walter's palms tingle, among other things. "I like bald men. Sex-ay. Can you imagine the kid Skinner and Scully could produce? Beautiful. Less to worry about from an alien perspective too at least both parents wouldn't have been mutants. And maybe the kid would've gotten the 'bots. I mean I assume it works like that...

"Yeah, I figured. And since I've reversed the programming, it would probably heal easy, too. Even LESS to worry about.

"No, don't think he's noticed. Didn't say anything, not that he would to me. We don't exactly casually chat. But don't know that he's been injured lately in a way that it would be obvious." Krycek gave a deep sigh. "No, I am not I give the same protection to everybody! I work just as damn hard for Mulder and Scully." He sat back up straight and started scrolling the laptop screen again.

"I can't just go around injecting EVERYONE I want protected with nanobots. Besides, it's expensive tech. I'd have to have a controller for everyone, and monitor everyone, make sure nothing went wrong...

"Well, yeah, I guess."

"I don't know that the healing would be that noticeable. I honestly don't know if he cut himself if it would just knit back together on the spot, or if it would just stop bleeding faster, heal faster, not get infected, etc. etc.

"Oh for crissakes, give it up! He's not going to declare undying devotion because I've made sure he's never going to catch a cold again! Read my lips, if you could see them. NON-STARTER. Killed. Him. Not to mention all the horrible nasty things I've done to his precious Mulder and Scully." The nasty edge to Krycek's voice was much more what Walter was used to from him.

"Ha. Nonsense. Jealousy is an ugly emotion. You know me, I'm so zen. I can avoid all the ugly emotions. By shooting the people causing them.

"Hey, come on, that was funny, admit it.

"No. No difference at all. Why would he treat me different. He's just cooperating because he can see the sense in it. Because he's got a LOGICAL brain, unlike some prima donna assholes I could mention who just FEEL their way through on fucking alien intuition, and let their emotions run riot and make stupid decisions just because I killed their fucking father, who they didn't even like, by the way. No, some people can see sense, and put humanity as a whole ahead of his own personal revenge agenda. But still, he's not working with me out of any sudden trust and warm feeling.

"We made sense. It helped that Jeremiah was with me. Hell, it helped he still thinks I can give him a heart attack at the push of a button.

"No, I do not care. I'm not living in la la land. I'm not hoping. Not hoping equals not disappointed.

"Okay, seriously now, enough. I'm not doing the heart-to-heart thing. I don't know how you always get me off topic on this crap. We have stuff to do. Where's the baby?

"Is Scully with it?

"Him. Him. Right.

"Good... he'd just bring more attention to the thing.

"YES, okay, okay, calm down. The BOY. More attention to the BOY.

"Yeah, he's a fucking neon arrow. 'Look! I'm doing something really interesting!' Hopefully he'll run in the opposite direction.

"Good. How many we got on him? And who?

"Okay, give him two more, if we can spare them. Can we? Where we at?

"Shit. Why that low?

"You did WHAT? Fucking HELL, I'm sending you to a military history class, you ASS! What were you thinking?? Did it occur to ASK me? Just because I was down with a bullet in the brain doesn't mean you're in charge!

"I know I SAID that! You should know what I MEAN! THAT kind of decision needs to be checked!" He pushed the chair back from the desk, the wire to the headphone pulling taut. With a scowl he rolled in closer again.

"Fine. Yes. I understand. YES, since there's fuck all I can do about it now, moving on. Who else we have?

"Tell you what, pull them off Mulder himself. They're all focusing on the baby at the moment, and Mulder's being weird anyway let him deal without personal backup for a change. Asshole."

He heaved a sigh. "No, I know. Make sure at least one person stays on Mulder. But put the others on the baby and Scully. Keep the two of them together at all costs. Got it?

"Nah, I'd do it anyway.

"Fuck that. I owe her.

"No, that is not maudlin. It's just fact. She deserves the kid.

"Suggest that I have Christmas spirit ONE more fucking time and you'll see exactly how much like myself I am when you see me next week. You'll think I never got shot in the head.

"Skinner? Ah, no. No, that's okay. He's okay.

"He's with Jeremiah. Getting briefed and... well, shown around a little.

Krycek winced and pulled the earpiece out. Walter could tell why given he could hear the volume of the voice on the other end. Krycek slowly eased it back toward his ear, but still held it a little bit away. "That hurt. HEADACHE, remember, asshole?"

The voice must have dropped, because he put the earpiece back in. "Because we want him to STAY part of our merry little band, and me taking him around is the best possible way to drive him back out. Spending time with me is exactly what he doesn't want.

"NO, I did not ask him! What is WITH YOU today?! Have you been hitting the eggnog? Watching sappy movies? That's it, isn't it? You're watching fucking Christmas movies and drinking, aren't you? Christ, man, you gotta cut that shit out. It'll rot your brain. Or I'll shoot you in the head.

"For recommending The Last Samurai to me.

"Yes, I know.

"Yeah, I don't disagree.

"No, it is never a good day to die.

"I did NOT cry. I DO not cry. It was just a well-done scene is all. Hey, did you ever think that the Emperor seemed like an alien?

"I am not, you're just being obsessive and stupid.

"No, you are exactly right, I don't want to talk about it. As I've said, repeatedly, I think. But that doesn't mean I'm trying to distract you." Alex grinned and leaned back in the chair again. "You do not.

"No, you don't. I know for a fact you don't have any of the goo in you, and you are NOT psychic. You're guessing.

"If you were psychic, you would not keep bringing up Walter Skinner, because you would know that you're making me crazy and the next time I see you I'm going to kick your ass.

"I don't LIKE eggnog.

"How the hell should I know if he likes it? And I don't care. What matters is we've got him on board, and to keep him on board I'm going to stay as far away from him as possible. I think he likes Jeremiah. Who wouldn't.

"Yep, I know. Hell, life would be so much simpler if I was carrying a torch for Jeremiah.

"NO, that is not and no, I am not. Torches are for losers. Like I said, no hope, no disappointment. I meant it. Realism, my dear. THAT is the coin of the Krycek realm. So give me a realistic assessment of where things are at. I can see the global stats look pretty steady. How's headquarters?" Now he listened for some time, with just affirmative murmurs, occasionally making notes on the pad or zooming into a section of the map.

Walter glanced at the Ghost. "There's a bit more," the Ghost said, sounding miffed. "You were with Past a lot longer than this. We're not even close to rolling up on deadline yet. What, am I boring you?"

"Ah, no... I wasn't..."

"This is Alex Krycek. I hardly get a thing to do. Think about me, will you? Let me have a little fun."

"I'm sorry, I just thought, because he's... never mind." Walter looked back, fell silent, and stood and watched Krycek listen and work on the laptop for a few more minutes.

Finally he sat back and stretched. "Okay, thanks. We're gonna get those bastards yet. Kick 'em off our planet. I'll let you get back to your 'nog. Nah, I got work to do. Doesn't matter what city I'm in, don't worry about it. Yeah. Oh for... Merry Christmas to you, too." Krycek rolled his eyes. Pulling the earpiece out, he hit one more key on the laptop then stood and stretched, arching his back. "fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck," he muttered as his back and joints cracked. "Skeleton fucking crew. You want anything done right, do it yourself."

He straightened and rubbed his eyes, looked around the room. Sighed. "Spending time with me is exactly what he doesn't want," he repeated to the empty room, and the resigned sadness in his voice caught at Walter's chest.

He walked to the bed, flung himself down, and picked up the remote. Clicked through channels showing one holiday themed something-or-other after another. Getting more and more frustrated, he finally clicked it off, got off the bed, and went to the minibar. Walter watched as he knelt and started pulling little bottles out, looking at them and tossing them to the bed one by one. Finally he stood and went to his backpack, digging out a bottle opener. Back to the bed, flopped down again and grabbed one of the bottles at random.

Looked at the tightly sealed twist off top and groaned. Clearly contemplated stabbing it with the bottle opener to make a hole in the top, then tossed it to one side. "Maybe later," he muttered. Stared over at the laptop. Pushed himself back up and went back to the desk. Sat staring blindly at the computer screen doing nothing.

Twisted in the chair, stared out the window. Walter could see it was raining, couldn't tell how hard. Sinking back in the chair, Alex went still and silent.

Just staring out the window.

"And there we are," Ghost of Christmas Present took Walter's elbow and the room began to fade.

"Whoa, wait, what? That's it? That's all?"

The Ghost looked at him, surprised. "Well, we can stand and watch him sit there and stare at the rain for a few hours if you want, but... we are on a deadline, after all." At Walter's pained expression, the Ghost relented. "After a few hours, he does start working again. Planning some raids on some alien strongholds." He watched Walter as if waiting for a smile. "No? Doesn't seem like enough Christmas? Well, not much I can do about that. I can only show and tell, can't create where there is nothing. I have my limits, too, you see. Just as the man with the face I'm borrowing."

Walter felt a chill and glanced around. They were on a city street, fairly deserted, everything closed. Rain was falling, and while Walter felt the cold, he didn't feel the wet. He looked down but even his socks were dry on the wet pavement. The Ghost started walking and beckoned Walter to follow.

"Everything has its limits. Even grudges, and old wounds, and hate."

"I don't hate him," Walter said immediately, then paused, wondering what he would have said before the Ghosts had come. Before he'd watched Krycek slowly getting his memories back, with that sweet smile and the openness.

The Ghost nodded. "What you see first, what emerges at that base emotional level of a soul reawakening, its human cage of a brain reassembling, is at the heart of the person. Laid bare. The tabula rasa that is never truly rasa. There's always a nature, a constitution, a self. It can be twisted and bent and wrenched and beaten and hammered like an iron in a blacksmith's workshop. It's the same substance, inside. And that's what comes first, before all the armor gets put back on piece by piece." It tilted its head and looked down at Walter. "The armor isn't all back on yet. You've still got the real him, the essential him."

Walter snorted. "You could have fooled me." He remembered those eyes spitting hate and fire.

The Ghost shook its head. "Nah. Scared. Scared to death. Throw up a quick shield or two. He's got enough to choose from and he's got a lot of practice. But it'll take time for all those pieces to reassemble. Now would be the ideal time to actually talk to that original person, should one want to... get to know him, for instance. Find out a little more about the way he thinks."

"I honestly don't know if I want to know how he thinks."

The Ghost laughed. "Too easy to realize those fantasies you don't have include talking, if you start seeing him as a human being?"

Walter glared at him. "I don't appreciate you hanging out in my mind."

"Sorry, comes with the territory. Which is why I know you would like to know how he thinks. And I highly recommend it! He has a fascinating mind. You've never seen anything like it."

"THAT I believe."

"Has anything we've shown you surprised you, Walter?"

He looked at the Ghost incredulously. "Ah, yes, I'd say so."

"Why not take a chance on being surprised more?"

Walter tilted his head back, staring at a leaden sky. "How... can I believe him-"

"Oh Walter! Stop!" The Ghost reached over and whacked him on the shoulder. Walter tumbled forward and fell over onto the sidewalk.

"For fuck's sake!"

"Sorry, I forget sometimes how fragile you all are." It reached down a large hand to help him to his feet again.

Walter took it and was jerked to his feet so hard he almost tipped over in the other direction. He noticed that somewhere along the line the Ghost had started getting larger again.

"I'm just tired of it, Walter. You've seen what we've showed you, you've felt what you've felt, and you know what's in your own head. Most of all, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt, better than giving him truth serum that YOU are the one person he respects beyond all others. You're the one who has been something of a stable fulcrum in a life that has never been in balance, not from the day he was born." The Ghost leaned forward and glared at Walter. "And now, when I'm telling you flat out that right now is the time to talk with him and be able to have a real conversation and connect with the real him under all the subterfuge and triple-thinking... now you say you wouldn't be able to believe what he says." The Ghost straightened up, looking even taller. "Sorry, old boy. You've got no sympathy from me. Stay alone and lonely and bitter for the rest of your life. Cooperate with him only out of desperation, keep him at an arm's length, believe the worst of him, never get to know him on your own. You're being given an opportunity few people get go ahead and squander it. You've read the book, I believe? You know we don't usually do things this way? It's not truly cricket, taking a person into someone else's memories and emotions. We're making a special exception, because... because... apparently because we're sentimental old asses. Most humans go through their entire lives never having a true sense of what is going on in someone else's mind about them or anything else. We're handing it to you on a silver plate. Go ahead, knock it out of our hands. Throw it on the floor. You deserve whatever you get." He nodded over Walter's shoulder just as the resounding gong of a clock striking three began to ring through Walter's head.

The rain turned to snow and swirled about them, the Ghost looking less like Jeremiah by the second. "At some point I believe I open my robe and show you Truth, the truth of what you're reaping in the present, like hunger and want, and tell you to look in their eyes. Well." He gripped his robe and swept open the lower half, for all the world like an old world Father Christmas turned flasher. And as always, there were no legs, just a deep, dark abyss, and in it-

-a young Krycek, the age he'd appeared the night his father handed him over to the Consortium, staring with huge green eyes, black hair falling over his pale forehead, looking as wretched and as dangerous as ever the horrible children in Dickens' original. Only rather than huddling in his rags, he stood straight, chin up, his arm extended. In his hand, a gun, offered up to Walter with unblinking certainty. Certainty that it would be used.

"Go ahead, Walter." The Ghost jeered as the second toll of the bell receded. "Take it. Use it. Kill the real Alex, the one you've got sitting on a couch trying to put the pieces of his brain back together. Put him out of his misery once and for all. You don't even need to take the gun... you have the power." It leaned forward, but Walter couldn't tear his eyes from the young Alex. The Ghost didn't seem to care, it simply intoned, "And that is exactly what you are reaping right now, here in the Present."

The robe dropped closed, the snow swirled harder, and the Ghost slowly disintegrated in a crystalline pattern of snowflakes.

Walter swallowed hard, icy air stealing his breath. A chill touched the back of his neck as the third and final gong finally faded away. The snow continued to fall, but from behind and to his right a thin cloud of cigarette smoke wafted into his vision. He started to turn, already knowing what he would see.

Standing across the street, leaning against a lamppost, Spender tipped a black fedora in Walter's direction.

Walking across the snowy street, he tossed his cigarette aside, reached inside his black trench coat and extracted a pack. Lighting up a new cigarette looked easier than it should have been in the snow. It glowed in the surrounding gloom as he sucked in and the streetlights seemed to go even dimmer. By the time he reached Walter's side, Spender was exhaling, and the smoke wreathed Walter.

"Hello, Walter."

"I didn't think you talked," Walter said, trying to ignore the icicles crawling across his skin.

The Ghost of Christmas Future shrugged. "Hasn't exactly been a traditional night, has it?"

It sounded rhetorical, but he seemed to actually be waiting for an answer. Walter cleared his throat. "No, I guess not."

"But I can offer a little traditionalism." Spender extended his arm, pointing with his glowing cigarette. Now, he remained silent.

Walter swallowed hard, positive he did not want to see what he was going to be shown. No one ever wanted to see what the Ghost of Christmas Future showed. That was kind of the point. Something about the silent looming made it more ominous. Walter forced his feet to move, turned in the direction Spender pointed. The snow swirled harder again, and a living room opened before him, cheerful and warm, a Christmas tree lit and glowing. Surprised, he glanced at the Ghost.

Just looking at him was unsettling. It was Spender and yet... not. He stood silently smoking, looking at the scene, not at Walter. As if feeling Walter's gaze, he simply pointed again.

A chilly wind swirled around him and Walter suddenly realized that unlike previous scenes, he was not actually in the room. It was as if he were still standing in the same cold street looking through a window, yet hearing and experiencing it all just as before. Wrapping his arms around himself, he redirected his attention to the room.

Mulder stood by the tree, drinking from a red mug. Scully sat on the couch. Walter started with surprise at seeing himself sitting beside her. A young boy sat on the floor, coloring. Strangely, John Doggett walked into the scene, carrying what looked like a champagne flute, and another mug. He walked to the couch.

"Here ya go, Walter." He handed off the mug, then lowered himself to the arm of the couch next to Scully and gave her the champagne. "Here's yours, hon."

Scully smiled up at him and the look on her face stunned Walter. He choked. "DOGGETT? And Scully?"

He heard the Ghost sigh beside him, but it said nothing.

On the couch, the other him was drinking from the mug, and he could almost taste... eggnog? The real stuff, not from a supermarket carton.

"I just don't know," a voice came from behind the tree and Monica Reyes stepped around it, a glass in her hand as well. "I feel like... we'd know? Somehow?"

"I haven't heard anything," John shook his head. "Not a breath of a hint. And some of his people are still around in the ranks. But nobody says anything."

Mulder snorted. "I couldn't give a fuck-" he started.

"Mulder," Scully admonished, pointing to the boy.

Mulder looked abashed. "Sorry. You know not to talk like dad, right, Will?"

The boy looked up and grinned. "Sure do."

"Anyway, I honestly could not care less. I hope he's just... fallen off the face of the earth. Maybe the Rebels took him with them. And maybe they ejected him into space once they hit orbit. One can only hope."

"Mulder," Scully spoke again, still sounding disapproving, "from what I understand, he's part of the reason Will is alive and well and with us."

"Yeah, and he's also one of the reasons it was so damn hard for you to have Will in the first place. John, I wouldn't even waste time inquiring, if Krycek's still around but gone to ground, he won't be found. We can only hope the inevitable finally caught up with him." Mulder gave them a significant look.

"Well, I've got no love lost for the bastard, that's for sure. But I admit, I am curious." John slid an arm around Scully's shoulders. "I know you are, too," he said to her.

She nodded. "I would like to know what happened."

Walter watched himself stand up from the couch, turn a little away from the others. There was a troubled look on his face as he sipped at his mug.

"So no one knows anything. No one's heard anything," Walter heard himself say. He picked up the odd note in his own voice, but no one in the room seemed to notice anything.

Everyone shook their heads. "No one's heard anything from him or about him in years," Monica said. "And I still say we'd know if he was-" she stopped. Looked at Will. "Um... gone." She waved a hand as if she were implying he'd vanished in a puff of magician's smoke.

Will looked up and sighed. "I know what you guys are talking about. You can say DEAD. It's okay." And with that pronouncement, he went back to coloring. Everyone started at him for a moment, then a ripple of laughter went through the room.

Walter noticed that he didn't laugh.

"Apparently you don't find Alex Krycek's potential death quite as funny as everyone else does," the Ghost commented, and it was Spender's voice and delivery exactly. Walter chose not to respond.

In the cozy little Christmas party, the conversation continued. "Why do you ask, Walter?" John looked up at him. "What made you think of Krycek?"

Walter could tell he was floundering for an answer. He finally said haltingly, "Oh, I don't know. Something about Christmas, I guess. It always... there's an old connection in my head."

"Something about Christmas," the Ghost murmured. "How about that."

"Bad memories," Mulder was saying. "I get it. It's understandable. It's okay, Walter. You can let it go. You not only had every right to shoot, but you didn't even end up killing him. I know you don't like the whole unarmed thing, but... it was KRYCEK."

"Is that what this is? Walter, Mulder's right. You gotta let that go." John spoke up. "He may have helped pull things out of the fire in the end, but he was hardly doin' it out of the kindness of his heart. He didn't have a heart."

"Honestly, Walter," Scully stood and put a hand on his shoulder, turning him back toward the room. "They're right. Whatever he did, he was pulling for survival, just like he always did. His own. He wanted to take down his old employers, he wanted to do as much damage to them as he could, he wanted to take out any alien or human that might possibly somehow exert a hold on him. His self-interest may have served us in the end, but that doesn't make him a good person. Doesn't take away everything he did to hurt you. And it certainly doesn't make him someone for a person like you to feel guilty over."

"Forget him, Walter," Mulder advised. "Everyone else has. And those of us who haven't, quite, are working on it."

Walter saw the forced smile on his face and winced. He could feel his roiling discomfort with the conversation, the ache of wondering, of not knowing, the emptiness of loss... everything the future him was thinking and feeling, he experienced in that false smile.

Forget him.

Spender's hand waved in front of them, the cigarette between two fingers, and the warm room disappeared in the weaving smoke. In its place a dark paneled study slowly resolved, two old men sitting in wing chairs, glasses of brandy in their hands. Walter couldn't believe it.

"YOU? Let me get this right, you survive all this shit?!" He whirled on Spender.

And the Ghost of Christmas Future looked back at him. Walter felt something inside himself curl and wither in that gaze. The Ghost extended its hand, cigarette intact, and pointed at the room.

Walter turned quickly, more than happy to look away from the Ghost.

"And another Christmas in England," Spender was chuckling in the depth of his chair. A fire crackled in a fireplace between them. "Who would have thought."

"I don't know why I still put up with you," the other man muttered, sipping his drink. Older, frail... but still patrician and genteel. Walter recognized the man whose name he had never known.

"Because I'm the only one who understands," Spender answered, lifting a cigarette to his lips. "And it's worth it, just to have someone around who knows."

"Hmm. One supposes." A silver eyebrow arched. "Two silly old men and their stories."

"Exactly."

"Still. Don't forget you're here on sufferance. Though why he thought you should be spared is far beyond me."

Spender smoked thoughtfully for a moment. "Never been able to figure it out myself, really. Wouldn't mind asking him."

"I keep telling you, he is not in touch with me."

"Then he must be dead."

"So you keep saying."

"Surely he'd be in touch with you if he'd survived?" Spender lifted his glass, as if he were toasting the other man.

The man shook his head, obviously exasperated. "Stop fishing. How many times do I have to tell you, I'm not lying to you. The last time I saw him was years ago... when he delivered you here." A slight edge of distaste wrinkled the man's face.

"Alex always was one of my favorites," Spender spoke to the depths of his brandy.

"So you keep saying..."

The Spender beside him waved his hand again and the bizarre scene in the study dissolved, to be replaced with an even stranger room. Room? Well, what else could it be. It just looked like the inside...

... of a spaceship? Couldn't possibly be that, now could it, Walter.

Jeremiah Smith sat talking quietly with a man and a woman Walter didn't know. The Ghost beside him still stood, smoking silently.

"And do you ever hear of the human... Alex Krycek?" the woman female alien? was asking Jeremiah.

Jeremiah shook his head. "He has simply disappeared."

"A shame," the man frowned.

"Yes," Jeremiah agreed readily. "It is. I wish it weren't so. I expressed many times how much I would like to maintain contact." The calm face registered a depth of sadness that surprised Walter. "It's never good to force any of the humans. He in particular responds poorly. I declined to place a tracker." Now he looked angry at himself. "I was a fool. I knew how he was. I knew his black moods. I should have... but I didn't want to lose his trust. He gives it so seldom. That would have been unforgivable, from his perspective. I was stupid. Now..." He spread his hands helplessly. "No one has seen him, heard from him, heard of him."

"All these years." The woman shook her head. "Do you believe he-" She stopped when the man sat forward, lifting a hand to halt her words.

Jeremiah heaved a sigh. "No, it's alright. Of course, I've thought of it. It would be all too easy. He certainly has the means, always close to hand. And with the Colonists finally gone-" he ran a hand back through his hair. "I watched the change. The emotional tailspin. He became unfocused. No purpose. It's certainly possible, as little as I like to contemplate the possibility." Jeremiah's stared at the floor between his feet, dejected.

The man and woman exchanged worried glances. "I'm sorry," the woman said softly. "I should not have brought it up."

Jeremiah lifted his head and gave her a sad smile. "No, it's fine. I simply get frustrated at myself that I didn't act in some more definitive way, when I had the opportunity. Part of me knew I should, but I worried about overstepping. He'd been pushed around so much for so long. It was so important to him to make his own choices. Then he went away for a few days and... by the time I realized he'd been gone longer than expected, it was too late. Gone. Simply gone."

Walter felt the knot in his stomach tighten. "Okay," he said to the Ghost, "I get it."

"No, I don't think you do," the Ghost said mildly, and though it was still Spender's voice, the timber of it made Walter shiver. No two ways around it, Christmas Future was fucking creepy.

The Ghost drew in on his cigarette, then breathed out smoke that thickened and obscured the scene, and suddenly they were back on the same snowy street, the streetlights still too dim. The Ghost took Walter's arm and drew him forward.

"I really don't need to see any grave stones or-"

He stopped short as the Ghost pointed, the wall of the building in front of them dissolved, and Alex stood at a window, staring out at the snow falling. The vacant expression, the total stillness, recalled to Walter the silent figure sitting in a chair in a hotel room, staring at the rain.

But... not dead. All the indications had been pointing to...

Really though, did Krycek honestly seem like the type to suicide? But then why did no one know where he was?

Walter stepped forward into the space and the damp chill of the street receded. He looked around. The small house was... Walter stared around, trying to put his finger on it.

Something like a hotel room.

He backed up and looked around, but no, it definitely wasn't a hotel. It just had all the personality of a hotel. It was fairly empty, with minimal furniture and none of the usual electronics. Nothing hung on the walls. Books were the only real pieces of interest, stacked haphazardly on a few surfaces. At least four were open, face down on the couch or on an end table, as if they'd been partially read then just put down and not picked back up.

It was a disturbing image, for some reason. Almost as disturbing as the complete lack of any other defining items in the room.

Walter walked closer to Krycek. He had aged as much as everyone in the foregoing scenes, though he aged damn well, Skinner noted. His hair was a little overgrown, shot through with more silver, and he could use a shave. He looked... different, though. Not older so much as... just different. Thinner, yes. Haggard. But Walter couldn't put his finger on what was nagging at him.

He wasn't wearing his arm and the sleeve of his plaid flannel shirt hung empty. Something about that image caught Walter.

Empty.

His face. His eyes. The room.

Empty. Hollowed out.

A knock on the door startled Walter more than Alex. Alex walked to the door, opened it, and nodded to the pizza delivery boy, waving him in to put the box on the closest surface while Alex dug money out of his pocket. He glanced at the cash in his hand as if he didn't recognize it, then without counting it he handed it off to the boy. Alex waved him away when he hesitated, reaching to make change.

All without saying a word.

The pizza guy nodded, smiled, thanked him. Alex nodded back and shut the door. Picking up the box he carried it to the couch, opened it on the coffee table, and methodically picked up a piece and started eating.

Walter wanted to scream. What the hell?

The Ghost's cigarette waved in front of his face and the smoke seemed to suck him through the front door and out into the back seat of the pizza delivery car. The teenage driver was showing his girlfriend the massive tip he'd gotten.

"I don't know. He's the weirdest guy. Jerry Smith. He orders a lot. Always tips like there's no tomorrow. It's awesome. Hell, we fight over who gets to deliver here." The boy laughed. "Never says two words." He started the car and pulled out, flipping on the wipers to clear the snow.

"And he doesn't, like... freak you out?" She glanced back over her shoulder at the little house, at the end of a dead end street.

"Nah. Well, not much, anyway. He's not, like, scary-weird, eh? He's just... I dunno. I think there might be something kind of wrong with him. I mean besides the fact that he only has one arm."

"OH my god! He's THAT guy? The one-armed guy? He totally freaks me out! He's always... walking."

The boy laughed. "Yep, walking... that's freaky alright."

She punched his shoulder. "Oh, you know what I mean! You said it yourself, he never says anything. And he's got this... look to him. He's weird."

"I think he can talk. I think he just... doesn't." The boy's forehead wrinkled. "He's not creepy or anything, he just seems, like... well, sad, kind of. You know?" He glanced at his girlfriend.

She nodded emphatically. "Yeah, I can totally get behind that. And I think you're right. He seems like he might not be totally all there."

Smoke tickled Walter's nose and they were suddenly pulling back, the car moving forward without them. When they stood in the street, Walter looked at the Ghost. "Oh come on. There's got to be... more. Are you telling me he just... exists? Like this? Walking around, sitting in an empty house, not talking to anyone?"

The Ghost shrugged, and tossed its cigarette away, already reaching for a new one. "Teenagers are often more observant than we give them credit for. But it's Christmas, remember. He does do more than walk around, but most of the town is closed today. He goes to the shooting range. Keeps in practice." The Ghost walked forward and they passed into Alex's house again, right through the wall. "Cleans the guns. He's never been an unnecessary talker. He doesn't find much use for other people, so why 'chat?' He's never understood that."

"Christ," Walter muttered. "I think death would be preferable. How does somebody live like that?"

"There's a stable about twenty minutes out of town. He goes out there and rides. He likes animals, remember. He walks dogs and socializes them for the local animal shelter. Sometimes he takes the train down into the states, then takes it back up here. Enjoys the scenery out the window."

Down to the states? So... Canada?

Krycek, living like some kind of hermit monk under a self-imposed vow of silence, cleaning guns in Canada.

What was wrong with this picture?

The Ghost was still talking. "And he likes to walk. He likes the quiet. He's got a cat."

"A cat." Walter huffed out a breath as the Ghost nodded. "Well then, everything's fine, isn't it. He's got a cat, after all."

The Ghost responded with a smile that was so Spender, it gave Walter a sick feeling. "I didn't say everything was fine. I simply said he has a cat. I was simply confirming that while yes, what you see is what there is, he does do more than sit and stare out a window. This is him. Living like this. This is the Future this Present is bringing.

"And of course he does enjoy staring out windows."

As if he heard the words like a command, Alex tossed down a half eaten piece of pizza and pushed up off the couch. He walked to the chair by the window and sank into it. This time a gray tabby walked across the floor and leaped up into his lap. His hand started running over the fur absently.

"What the hell is it with him and staring out windows?"

"It's better than staring at walls? I don't know. I'm a spirit. He likes watching the weather. He likes the peace and quiet. He likes 'zoning out' as you humans call it."

"This is a horrible existence."

The Ghost shrugged narrow shoulders yet again, and Walter noticed the trench coat was now picking up snowflakes. He glanced down at himself and saw them landing on him as well. "Perhaps a horrible existence for you-"

"Horrible for anyone. Look at his face."

"Well, yes, one would call it a rather empty existence. But really, Walter, he feels like an empty person. It fits his state of mind. His state of heart."

They were receding again. Krycek's room, his chair, his all-absorbing window, all getting smaller as they seemed to just slide through space and time.

The gray, snowy street. Walter felt sick. Now he could feel the snow falling on his arms. He shivered. The cold was reaching him. His socks were suddenly starting to feel wet.

"Christmas Future." The Ghost waved its cigarette, but for once the ghostly gesture didn't take them anywhere.

Somehow that seemed fitting.

"And here's where I say 'tell me the writing on this stone can be expunged,' I believe," Walter said to the empty street beside them.

"Yes, and I believe I don't answer. Because, as you've observed, traditionally I'm not much of a talker." It sighed deeply. "As my sibling commented, we've had to 'change with the times.' I hate talking. I was much more ominous when I was completely silent. Wouldn't you agree?"

Walter did have to agree, turning to nod at the Ghost. "Yes, you always freaked me out as a kid."

The Ghost nodded. "See? Exactly. That's the point. That's what I'm supposed to do. Now I'm just one more chatty narrator."

Walter stared down the empty street again. "I wouldn't fret about it. You're still damn unsettling," he muttered absently.

"Really?" The Ghost put a hand on his shoulder and Spender's voice sounded delighted. "Thank you. I mean that. I truly appreciate that."

Walter rolled his eyes. "No problem." He heaved a sigh, his mind whirling. The inevitable stared him in the face hell, slapped him in the face and he still couldn't quite believe it. "Okay, so the whole point of these visitations is that it can all be changed. Obviously. Well, not the past, and only part of the present, but... the future for certain. So... you guys are honestly telling me that a romantic relationship with me is the pivotal thing, and that's really what I'm supposed to do?" He turned back to the Ghost and he was looking at the wall in the cabin. Standing alone at the railing.

He wanted to scream. He had to literally bite his cheek to keep from it. For one moment one brief shining moment he contemplated. Dream? His cold, damp socks weren't even the thing that slapped the thought down even as he had it.

He'd been with the X-Files too long.

And truly, the Ghosts had been too convincing.

So stop questioning. Stop wondering, stop shying away from it. Stop asking them questions you already know the answer to. Yes, obviously this is it. A relationship. With Alex Krycek.

A real honest-to-Christmas Spirit romantic relationship with what was obviously one of the most emotionally fucked-up men in the entirety of Walter's half-century experience.

And he'd known some fucked-up guys.

Deep breath.

Go with it. Open up the old doors and remember how you felt about him. Remember how much it hurt...

And think about what the Ghosts said about the real, honest Alex. The clinging humanity and how he could have been turned. At the right time. By the right person.

Well, he was apparently already turning on his own, but... obviously, now is the right time. And I'm the right person.

Okay, so... let's do this.

It was odd, feeling like he was girding his loins to go into battle, all to try to initiate a romantic relationship. Asking out a girl in high school had never been this hard. Proposing to Sharon hadn't been this difficult, and he'd had some serious reservations about that.

This was different. Which was ridiculous, because he already knew where Alex was at, courtesy of the Ghosts. This is a sure thing. A slam-dunk. Right?

Scrooge still had to work at it to get to salvation. He had to put in the time and effort. Of course, simply turning around your own approach to the world and becoming a charitable old bastard was a little easier than trying to convince someone else that something he thought was impossible was actual happening.

A someone else who was, lest he forget, easily the most screwed-up man in the history of his experience.

Think of it as a challenge! You're always up for a challenge!

He started to back down the ladder.

When I was 25 years younger, maybe. And had more hair.

He slowed down on the ladder, hanging in midair.

He thinks bald guys are sexy, he said it himself. You heard him. It'll be fun! When was the last time you were able to make someone's dream come true? Literally?

He started descending again, making it to the floor this time before he was gripped with the next doubt.

Whoa, take it down a notch, old man. Don't start believing your own press. Make someone's dream come true? Let's not get too grandiose.

He paused, staring at the man slumped on the couch, head in his hand exactly as he had been when he had first looked over the railing with the Ghost of Christmas Present. Either Krycek Alex, he should probably start thinking of the man as Alex had fallen asleep in that position, or Walter's little spiritual journey had been out of the normal time continuum.

He smirked. Lost time. And not even any aliens involved.

Back on track. You've got a job to do.

He walked forward two paces before dragging to a halt yet again.

Job? Fercrissakes, Skinner. How about you stop treating this like a work assignment and start thinking of it as fun.

'Fun' just didn't feel quite right, somehow. 'Relationship with Krycek'... Alex, Alex... and 'fun' didn't seem to fit together. Confusing, confounding, strange, unexpected, bizarre, ridiculous...

Fine, 'desirable.' How's that?

That worked quite well, actually. If he was really going to open those old doors... hell, fling open the windows, too.

"Skinner, what the fuck are you doing. Trying to be quiet or something? Sneak up on me? Because I knew when you came down the ladder."

Walter jumped. Well, hell. Look like a damn fool, then. He walked the rest of the way to the couch.

"Go away," Alex said without looking up or moving in any way. "Just. Go. Away."

His voice sounded odd. Walter ignored the words and sat down next to him on the couch. "Alex, I-"

"WHAT do you not understand about GO AWAY?" Alex's head snapped up, face almost demonic in the strange light and shadows from the fire.

In a strange, beautiful way that made Walter's chest ache.

Huh. I think I got the door open.

"No," he said simply, voice gentle. "Not going away."

Alex stared at him as if he'd gone crazy, just as Walter knew he would react to any show of kindness, and certainly any show of interest. And was it a trick of the light or were Alex's eyes... wet, his cheeks...

Alex closed his eyes and tipped his head back and shouted at the ceiling. "For fuck's sake I KNOW you hate me but will you please get OUT of my face until this damn stuff wears off I don't know what's wrong with me but it's got to be this fucking alien junk-"

"Alex, it's okay, don't worry about it. Relax, listen to me, just try to calm down and breathe-"

"I DON'T FUCKING CRY!"

"I know you don't. Honestly, I know, you're in a weird state of mind-" and heart the Ghost's voice whispered. "-and the alien stuff is making your emotions all whacked and you can't control things the way you ordinarily would and I know it's not YOU." Walter let the lie trip off his tongue. He knew now it was Alex, but one thing at a time.

Alex looked at him again as if he'd grown a second head.

Walter continued, the words spilling out without any preplanning. "Although I have to say, that death scene in the Last Samurai really is incredible and it would be totally excusable to be affected by that."

Alex physically jerked back, flattening himself into the corner of the couch. "WHAT?"

What in hell possessed me to say that? Walter wondered. He was trying to calm Alex down, not freak him out more.

"Did I- I don't remember saying anything about that, you weren't there-" Alex babbled, then paused, confused. "Were you? Am I still not... what's going on?" His voice became plaintive, tearing at Walter's heart. "Is this a dream? Did I fall asleep? Why am I dreaming this-"

"No," Walter interrupted, "and you're probably better off sitting up awake in this cabin." He glanced around, as if the place was actively haunted. Who knew, maybe it was. All he knew was he didn't fancy Alex getting the spiritual safari through his Christmas past, present and future. Especially not before he had a chance to fix the present. Or at least adjust it onto a better course. 'Fixing' was probably asking a little much.

"And no, you remember okay, I didn't see the Last Samurai with you. Although I'd like to watch it with you sometime." The idea of Alex getting choked up by a death scene in a movie sounded too fascinating to pass up. "Forget about that, you must have mentioned it to me at some point. All I'm saying is don't worry about being emotional, I know you're not a crier, I know this is the alien injection and the brain injury talking. Or... crying. You know what I mean."

"Who the hell ARE you?" Alex drew further away into the corner of the couch, if possible.

"I know this is going to seem completely out of the blue and bizarre and unbelievable but I've had a kind of epiphany, Alex. 'Transformative experience,' you could even call it, and hey, you've been around as much if not more 'bizarre' as I have, so what's a little personal transformation compared to some of the other stuff we've been through?" How do I explain this? I cannot tell him I got visited by the Ghosts of Christmas. He'll be convinced he's dreaming. Well, actually, he started it with the... of course!

"I know you'd like me to believe that the things you said about me about us before your memories started really solidifying was just some kind of weird alien-induced hallucination. Ordinarily I'd believe you, but Jeremiah shared a little too much about how this stuff works, and how it's the real you that comes back first, the you that's underneath it all. Underneath all the shit."

"You have got to be kidding," Alex spat and Walter could hear the desperation. "You can't possibly-"

Walter rode up over him. "Shut up, Alex, and let me get to the point. Which is, it reminded me of how I used to feel about YOU, and the feelings that are underneath all the anger and hurt from over the years. And I'm sick of wasted time and this is a huge opportunity. A slice of time-out-of-time. No one to get in our way, no huge alien emergency knocking. No Mulder about to fall off a cliff, no baby to deal with yet. We're stuck here together while you recover, and dammit, I'm going to use this to get things out in the open!

"I... Jesus, how do I say this..." Walter ran a hand over his head, feeling vulnerable and shaky and committed all at the same time. He knew he had to get to Alex fast before the man got so wigged out he pulled a gun and shot him. But how did he say this? "I... I've got... feelings for you, Alex. I always have had. Everything that's gone on hasn't been able to choke them out, so I think they're here to stay. I-"

Alex burst out with a scathing laugh. "Oh, I know, Walter. Of course! You have feelings for me! I can fucking guess what kind of feelings," he sneered. "Probably all the same warm fuzzy feelings I have about you! We can play a word game and name them! Contempt, hatred, disgust... let's play Hate Scrabble. What is this, some kind of ridiculous con attempt? I'm the one trying to convince you to work with my side of the operations, Skinner. You don't need some... some idiotic nonsensical attempt that's about as convincing as... as... nothing, to what? Seduce me out of my dastardly secrets? My nefarious plans?"

"It's not that," Walter found it surprisingly easy to remain calm. The image of young Alex in the depths of the bottomless pit that was Christmas Present's robe was anchored in the forefront of his brain, eyes searching, face so horribly resigned. That boy's face kept his voice even and gentle. "You've already got me. I'm convinced that throwing in with you, and Jeremiah, and your... team, whoever they are... is the way to go. It's the right side." He shrugged. "It's going to be the winning side, and it's going to be the best, least messy way to deal with everything that's going to be coming our way. I don't think we need to try to wheedle any underlying plans out from under what you're telling me."

Alex's face started to lose its disdain and take on an honestly perplexed tinge. "Well, you should," he snapped. "I always have some underlying plan. You should know that by now."

Walter burst out laughing, a genuine amused laugh. "Okay, yes, that I have no problem believing. But I think if we go along with the plans as you've laid them out, even as scant as you've told me so far, you won't be needing any plan B's that we'll need to wheedle out of you. And if you do, hopefully we won't need to wheedle, if we just agree that you've got a hell of a lot more and better experience with the enemy than any of the rest of us do, including his highness Mutant Mulder."

That got a cough of a laugh out of Alex, which Walter took as a good sign. Until Alex started talking again, his voice still angry. "I don't know what you're playing at, Skinner, but it really isn't funny. I'm legitimately impaired right now, and whatever the hell you're doing is obviously trying to take advantage of that and that's something I'd do. So stop doing it. This whole alien crap Jeremiah told you about the 'real me' bubbling up first... sure, fine, maybe I did think you were sexy at some point in time. But don't kid yourself, you were always a mark." His lips crooked up on one side in a condescending smile. "It was just plain, damn, dumb luck when I was actually attracted to one of my marks."

Walter gave Alex his best salacious smile in return. "Well then, all I can say is it's too damn bad you never actually moved on this mark. We could have saved a lot of wasted time and had one hell of a lot of fun." He dragged the word 'fun' out, dropping his voice into a deeper register.

The sheer shock on Alex's face almost sent Walter off into a fit of laughter again, but he held it back.

"No, seriously, WHO are you?" Alex's voice actually cracked and for the first time his face showed a hint of serious question.

Now Walter did laugh. "Nope, not alien, no shape shifting. I can bleed a little for you if you want? No green. I'm just being honest with you in a way I never have before, because I was too scared or too hurt and pissed off, or just too stubborn and stupid and macho and whatever else you can think of. This is really honest, the way I probably should have been way back in the beginning, but damn it, you were an employee and if the Bureau frowns on fraternization, and especially fraternization with a supervisor, they sure as hell aren't thrilled with gay fraternization with a supervisor and besides, hello? Did I know you were gay? NO."

"May I remind you that you were the one married to a woman? And who goes into a job at the FBI screaming 'hey, I'm gay, and wow is my AD hot!' I wasn't really in a position to advertise."

"More than I was I thought I was a mark! You could have worked that seduction and I'd have dropped for it like a ton of bricks and you'd have fallen in love with my sweet inner self under the gruff exterior and left the Consortium way back then and I'd have divorced Sharon and she could have got on with her life even sooner, and we'd have spent the majority of the last decade having scorching hot sex and battling the aliens together."

Alex was staring at him with his jaw dropped, eyes huge.

"And the sex would have been scorching, Alex. I assure you," Walter continued matter-of-factly. "I was younger, more stamina..."

Alex shook his head rapidly, then reached up and slapped himself on the cheek. "OW..." His hand moved from his reddening cheek to his forehead, his eyes closed in pain.

"Good god, watch it! Your head has taken a real beating."

Alex's eyes opened and stared suspiciously at Walter. "Yeah, I'm reminded just how much of one. Look, I need you to bleed. I just can't-"

Walter heaved a sigh but stood up, smiling good-naturedly. "It's okay, I should have started there. I can understand. Let's see, there was a knife in your bag, wasn't there?" He walked to the backpack and rummaged until he found the jack knife, opening it on the way back to the couch. "Sorry, but there's only so much I'm willing to do, I'm not going to slice myself open." He sat and using just the tip of the knife punctured the skin on the heel of his hand. He squeezed a bead of blood out, and smeared it across his palm. It looked almost black in the firelight, but it was clearly not green.

"Fucking hell," Alex mumbled, staring at Walter's extended palm. "You really... you really are Skinner."

"Call me Walter?"

"So you're really you, and you really are talking like a crazy man, but there's absolutely no logical reason for you to be doing this, so all I can think is you're playing some kind of sadistic game to lure me in and try to break me with a false romance or-"

"Alex? Shut. Up." Catching Alex's face between his palms and tilting it toward him, he leaned in and kissed him soundly. He felt Alex freeze, his lips go motionless, no response at all, and he simply ignored it. Using his own greater strength to his advantage, and Alex's partial paralysis against him, he angled his body to press Alex into the corner of the couch and hold him there with his weight. He felt Alex's hand grip his forearm like a vice, try to push him back, and he ignored that too.

Holding Alex's head firmly so he couldn't turn away, he lightened the pressure of the kiss to a gentle brush, until he was barely sucking at the full lower lip, then pressed his tongue against the closed lips forcefully. He felt the resistance in the tension of Alex's jaw, and eased again, catching the upper lip between his teeth and nibbling, tugging slightly away from the teeth, sucking, then sliding his tongue up under and just as quickly down and inside the lower, forcing Alex's lips apart as he relaxed his entire weight into him and pinned him thoroughly to the couch, the pressure collecting and focusing on the connection of their mouths and Alex's lips and teeth parted on a helpless, muffled sound.

Success... Walter felt a heated thrill shoot straight to his cock at the submission, and bore down harder, forcing Alex's mouth further open, tongue stroking in strong and demanding, thrusting forward over and over, reaching to the back of Alex's mouth and then forcing further.

OPEN, dammit, open up and give it to me, you're mine and I'm taking you like I should have years ago and you're never going to forget it again. Spread and take it...

His tongue mimicked with Alex's mouth exactly what his cock was aching to do to that plush ass, what his cock would be doing, as soon as Walter had the man out of his jeans and his legs apart. The hand at his forearm was still gripping but now when Walter released Alex's face and barely twisted his own arm, Alex's fingers gave like overstressed rubber bands, and Walter was able to easily turn it around and catch Alex's wrist, pressing back and pinning it to the couch cushion next to Alex's head with barely any effort at all.

Obviously the man's strength wasn't back yet and if that worked in Walter's favor, he was all for it and would take full advantage. Alex's lips were warm and responsive under his now and remained parted and pliant. No teeth closing, no tension in his jaw, no barriers at all as Walter's lips and tongue worked his mouth over, dominated him completely. No resistance, just wide open and taking it. Walter intended to make sure that was exactly how he stayed throughout.

With the pinning of his arm, Alex's body seemed to go liquid under him, relaxing completely, conforming to the planes and angles of Walter's body. Walter let his weight settle down more firmly, and still not releasing Alex's mouth or wrist, let his other hand fall from Alex's face and start wandering down, breezing past the missing arm to tug at his shirt, then crawl underneath it to warm skin. Mindful of the scars and the horror that went with them, and the shaky state Alex's brain was still in, rather than stroking up over stomach and chest, he shifted his weight further on top of Alex and slid his left leg over Alex's lap.

With one firm movement he pressed his knee between Alex's, pushing the man's knees then thighs easily apart as his own muscular thigh settled between them, forcing them further open. Alex made another helpless noise, body squirming but powerless to move anywhere under Walter's grip. After a long moment of letting his hard thigh press against Alex's crotch, shifting slightly to keep Alex's hips twisting under him, he rose up slightly on his left knee, using the motion to nudge Alex's leg's further apart, lifting himself enough for his right hand to move between them and start working the buttons of Alex's jeans.

Immediately Alex's hips bucked up and his arm twisted under Walter's grasp, trying desperately to move. His thighs pressed inward against Walter's legs and Walter made a soft sound of amusement against Alex's lips, moving his left knee to a slightly better angle to hold Alex's legs open. His fingers released the button and tugged on the front of the jeans, the zipper opening with a rasp, helped along by the swell of Alex's hard on that he could feel against his knuckles, pressing for freedom. He eased his pressure on Alex's lips and licked his tongue over the bottom lip, then sank his teeth into it, all the while pulling the front of the jeans the rest of the way open and tugging the front down. Once opened to his satisfaction, Walter lifted his hand away and stroked gently up under Alex's shirt, over his stomach.

The reaction was immediate and intense. Alex's hips strained upward making desperate noises. His body twisted wildly, trying to press his partially-released cock against something, anything, that would give pressure, friction. Walter left the tight jeans open only at the crotch, framing Alex's bulging underwear, and worked his hand higher under the shirt, to Alex's right nipple, as close as he dared get to the left side of Alex's chest.

His thumb and finger pinched closed on the tight nipple just as he thrust his tongue back between Alex's parted lips. He tugged on it gently, then pinched tighter, tugged again. Alex made a gasping throaty sound that Walter liked, so he did it again. Then again. Each time the sound got a little wilder. He released Alex's lips and looked down between their bodies to enjoy the sight of Alex's hips twisting and moving, his own leg still bracing Alex's thighs apart. With each firm tug, Alex's thigh muscles contracted, hips pulsing upward.

Nothing had ever looked so hot to him as the open vee of the jeans, Alex's white underwear stretching to the limit over a swollen cock that Walter could see perfectly through the thin material, particularly where the fabric was going translucent with wetness, a spot that was growing every second. With one last tug, Walter released the nipple and carefully avoiding direct contact with Alex's cock, slid his hand into the open jeans at the bottom of the zipper and cupped Alex's balls.

Again, the response was gratifying. He squeezed the warm handful gently and got a fantastic whimper. Alex's scrotum was plump and heavy as Walter lifted it free of the encasing jeans and tugged forward, feeling the underwear stretch further under his fingers until Alex's balls were as visible as his cock, pushed up and out by the rucked denim that he pushed further down. Running his hand over a quivering thigh, he spent long moments admiring the sexy image of Alex's genitals spilling out of his jeans, jiggling slightly every time he moved his hips, which was becoming constant.

"Oh god, ohgodohgod..." Alex groaned and rolled his head against the couch. "Fuck, touch me, please, god, touch me."

"Mmm, not yet," Walter purred, lifting his hand to caress Alex's throat, and tilt his chin up again, settling his mouth on the swollen lips and pressing them apart with his tongue. After another long, hard kiss, he sat back and caught Alex's eyes. "I'm going to release your hand, and you're not going to move it," he said, in a voice with no extra inflection, as if he were simply asking Alex if he were comfortable.

Alex's mouth worked and finally he just nodded, but Walter was already moving on, not doubting the hand would remain exactly where it was. Moving back far enough to give himself more leverage, he admired the way Alex's cock and balls sat so perfectly on display, then used both of his hands to grab hold of the jeans and pull them down off Alex's hips. Alex was nothing if not helpful, arching and wriggling. The jeans came off, down over long, lean thighs, and Walter eased himself off the couch and down onto his knees to pull them down and off over Alex's feet, followed by Alex's socks. Tossing them aside, he took hold of Alex's ankles and pushed them apart, enjoying the whimper that Alex tried to bite back. Sliding his hands up to Alex's knees he pressed them open, and sat back on his knees, just letting his eyes eat away at the sight of Alex sprawled on the couch, arm up over his head, practically bare from the waist down, somehow looking more vulnerable for the imbalance of his covered torso and his bare groin and legs.

Alex's chest rose and fell in an uneven rhythm, his eyes glued to Walter in the flickering light, waiting for the next signal. Walter stroked up the inside of Alex's spread thighs, watching Alex's cock twitch under the silky white briefs. He grinned and looked up at Alex, enjoying the way his cheeks flushed darkly. "Please," Alex whispered roughly. "Please touch it. Please."

"Almost," Walter soothed. "Soon." He thrilled at Alex's tortured moan that sounded like a sob, and the way he bit his puffy lip to try unsuccessfully to keep it in. Even better was the way the man didn't seem to even consider moving his own hand down to ease the ache, but simply waited for the next command. Walter breathed in the scent of power, of submission, and wondered why the hell he'd waited this long. "Keep your legs apart. Don't move, stay just like that." Again, it wasn't harsh or demanding, simply his normal voice. He slapped both thighs lightly as he stood up and looked down at the long body offered up to him. His own urgency started pressing him on.

Backing away so he could continue to enjoy the sight, he loved the way Alex's body twitched, trying so hard to keep still despite the riot of sensations that must have been coursing through him, and the fully accessible pose. Walter imagined the feeling of being left on the couch, so open and aroused, his body visibly begging for it, just as he had verbally begged for it moments ago... he savored the way it made his own cock throb. Alex's face was darkly flushed, hinting that he was keenly feeling every inch of whatever Walter could possibly imagine.

Finally he looked away to walk to the kitchen area. He knew he'd seen shortening in his quick perusal before he'd started unpacking. Sure enough, an unopened short, squat can was in the first cupboard he opened. He plucked it out and started back to the couch, grinning at the way Alex's eyes tracked his hand. He tossed it to the couch next to Alex when he got close enough and watched Alex's eyelashes flutter, his breath catching.

Pulling his shirt off over his head in the last few steps to the couch, he stood in front of Alex again and began to very deliberately undo his own jeans. Alex's eyes had moved from the grease to Walter and he was glued to the process, his lips parted and his breathing speeding up.

Shoving down his jeans and underwear in one quick motion, he then slowed down and slid his hand along the length of his cock as he stepped out of the pooled jeans. Alex's eyes widened at the size and girth, and his throat worked again in a visible swallow. He couldn't take his eyes away, and Walter decided he could wait just a little longer to get into that ass, given the obsessive way Alex was staring at his cock, and the way his kiss-bruised lips remained parted. So inviting.

He stepped closer and lifted his right foot to the couch, resting it beside Alex's knee, then crooked his finger at Alex. "You can move," he said casually, "but don't even think of touching yourself. You're mine. All. Mine. Only I touch what's mine."

Alex's throat worked convulsively and he nodded, his hand falling to the arm of the couch but not moving any further. He pushed himself forward, and Walter grinned to watch him carefully keeping his legs spread wide as he leaned forward, lips opening.

Gripping the back of Alex's head with one hand, Walter took his cock in the other and took control of the motion. Rather than Alex initiating and taking the cock into his mouth, instead it was the tip of Walter's thick cock forcing its way between Alex's parted lips, Walter controlling the speed and the depth, pushing all the way in without pause in one slow thrust, forcing Alex's mouth to stretch wide to take it all, stopping only when his cock bumped the back of Alex's throat and Alex's chin rested against his balls.

"There," he murmured, stroking Alex's hair with his left hand, keeping him pinned in place with his right hand on the back of Alex's head. "You like that? That's what you want, isn't it." He ran his fingers down the side of Alex's face to his bulging cheek, running his thumb along Alex's lips, feeling how they were stretched to the limit. He twined his right fingers in Alex's hair, eased back almost all the way out and thrust in again, listening for the small helpless sounds that he'd come to adore beyond all reason just within the last span of minutes. As the delightful noises came, he forced his cock past them, muffling them, holding Alex in place again with a firm hand and laughing low and soft. "Yes, exactly what you want."

Alex's breath was coming fast and hard through his nose, his cheeks working around the wide cock. Walter eased back to make sure he could get a full breath, then this time stood perfectly still and used his grip to force Alex's head forward, force his mouth down his cock, nestling the tip just that much further down Alex's throat, his own head rolling back on a groan as Alex swallowed reflexively at the invasion... the feeling was absolutely sublime.

"Oh, you're mine now. Definitely mine." Walter held his cock deep in place for another long moment, then relaxed his grip and pulled Alex's head back just enough to clear his throat for air. He stared down, watching Alex suck in air through his nose, creating suction on Walter's cock at the same time. This time he didn't pull all the way back, he simply stayed in place, his cock resting heavy on Alex's tongue, lips still forced wide. Alex could breathe but he still couldn't move, his mouth completely filled, jaw stretched to the limit. Swallowing was still difficult and Walter stared down at him, entranced, falling more in love with every passing second. "This is your future now, Alex. Look up at me."

Alex's eyes immediately lifted upward, huge and wet and limpid. Not a shred of rebellion or attitude or resistance.

"Does that mouth full of cock convince you I'm serious? Because believe me, I'll keep giving it to you until it does. And I'll keep giving it to you even if you're already convinced. Because this is what we were meant to be, Alex." He held him in place one more long moment, then released Alex's head and with an effort pulled his cock free. Only concentrating on where he was going to be sticking it next kept him focused.

He pushed Alex back against the couch and for the first time dragged his hand down over Alex's chest all the way to his crotch. Alex gasped and arched. Walter wrapped his hand gently around Alex's cock and balls, rubbing lightly through the thin, slick silk.

"Oh YES, fuckyes... god... yesyesyes... thank you thank you, oooh thank you..."

Walter smiled at what he knew was going to turn to disappointment momentarily, fondled the tight balls once more, then twisted his fingers into the material of Alex's underwear, gripped it tight, and yanked.

Alex yelped as the underwear pulled up sharply under his ass. That, and the sound of material ripping, sent a frisson of pure pleasure down Walter's spine. The underwear parted down one of the front seams, and Walter took hold of the open seam with his other hand and yanked hard again in opposite directions, until the crotch and one of the sides split completely, the elastic waistband the only thing holding.

Stunned yet again, Alex had barely caught his breath when Walter braced his right knee on the couch, gripped Alex around the hips and waist, and flipped him over, face down into the corner of the couch. Alex still had a clumsy edge to his movements, and Walter didn't know for sure if his legs were actually back in working order, but he didn't really care and wasn't going to stop to ask. Alex's muffled yelp of surprise as his chest whumped against the corner and arm of the couch shot another arrow of heat straight to Walter's cock.

Straightening, Walter leaned over, wrapped his arms around Alex's long legs, and lifted them the rest of the way onto the couch. Firmly gripping Alex's hips again, he lifted and pushed Alex forward in one quick motion, summarily upending him over the sofa arm. His hips rested against the arm, his still-clothed upper body down over the arm toward the floor. His knees and lower legs sprawled on the couch seat, and his bare ass was displayed perfectly for Walter's pleasure. Walter reached out and grabbed the elastic waistband with the torn silky fabric of what was left of Alex's underwear hanging from it. He pushed it up higher on Alex's waist, away from his ass but where Walter could still see it. More inarticulate sounds of surprise accompanied Alex's sudden change in position and hearing them while seeing the ripped briefs framing that ass was driving Walter's desire to get inside it as quickly as humanly possible.

And yet, the sight was just too damn wonderful to waste. "There, perfect position for you," Walter declared as he straightened, delivering a sharp slap to the round cheeks, delighting in the way the flesh jounced under his hand. He did it again just to watch the plump ass jiggle. The sounds Alex was making were impossibly sexy, and Walter pinched his ass, just to see how many different sounds Alex had in that wordless repertoire. At the sobbing whimper that accompanied another slap, he realized it was just too good to rush, as much as his cock wanted to push in between those twin globes and rut. "God, Alex, you are the hottest thing I have ever had in my life," he breathed as he braced one knee on the couch between Alex's, his other foot still on the floor.

He opened the can of shortening and scooped out a dollop, staring at the ass before him and the back of the scrotum he could see between Alex's legs. Putting the can on the back of the sofa, he worked the grease between the fingers of his right hand while his left reached out and pushed Alex's thighs further apart. Alex's weight was all on his hips, braced by the couch arm, and when his left leg slipped from the couch it didn't affect his position except to give Walter a much better view of Alex's swollen balls. Reaching between his legs, Walter squeezed his balls once, then felt around and gripped his cock, feeling to see if there was anything he could rub up against. He liked the idea of fucking Alex with nothing for him to grind against, so his stiff cock would thrust into the air, aching, but not get any relief until Walter chose to jerk him off. Alex's position let only the tip of his cock rub against the arm of the couch, and Walter found he actually liked that idea even better. Not enough to get him off, but enough to get him even hotter.

Releasing Alex's cock he fondled Alex's ass and used his thumb to spread the left cheek from the right, exposing Alex's asshole. Lifting his slick right hand, Walter positioned his long, thick thumb against the tight hole and pressed. The soft, hot flesh gave, and his greased thumb slid past the first ring of muscle with barely a push.

Alex's torso arched up, and he gave a strangled gasp followed by a moan. "Oh fuck, oh fuck..."

"Yep, in a minute," Walter said calmly, pushing further and feeling the resistance of the second ring of muscle. "I want to play for a bit first."

Alex's desperate wail of protest made Walter laugh. "Sorry Alex," he said, completely unapologetically. "You were the one who needed to be convinced of my sincerity. Well, I'm nothing if not thorough." He kept up the steady pressure against the second muscle, the first one gripping tight around his thumb. Wiggling his thumb gently back and forth, he enjoyed the almost constant litany of sounds Alex was making now. One more wiggle and the muscle gave, Alex gasped, and Walter's thumb slid deep into the tight, tight ... so tight... ass. He buried it all the way, the thickening base forcing Alex's asshole wider open. "Fuck, that's hot," he murmured, then started to move his thumb around, feeling with the pad for the dimpled spot, the little bump that would- -

Alex's back arched, he hit a new high note, and his ass thrust back hard against Walter's thumb.

- - drive Alex wild. Found it. Gently rubbing his thumb over it, Walter sank into the glorious noises Alex was making, feeling Alex's spread legs stiffening on either side of him, the muscles contracting and straining. Alex's ass wriggled for more, the flesh still jiggling with each movement. Walter couldn't tear his eyes away from his thumb pressing that hot hole open, the pink flesh opening wider every time Alex drove his ass back, each time Walter pressed in that one... magic... spot...

Alex was moaning continuously now, his hand gripping the couch arm, knuckles white. Every time Walter's thumb rubbed, his head and shoulders jerked upward again, his whole body arching, and he made that delicious sobbing noise again.

"Ohgodohgodohgod... please... please... oh... I can't..."

"Sure you can," Walter said cheerfully, moving his thumb back into position and rubbing firmly. Alex's body went into a spasm, accompanied by those sounds Walter loved, and his ass thrust upward. "See? You can take it... over and over." He relaxed his thumb letting it retreat a little, and watching Alex's whole body collapse over the couch arm, the muscles of his thighs quivering.

"Please, please... touch me... let me... I can't hold on, really I can't..."

"But you are, Alex. You're holding on beautifully. And really, there's nothing you can do about it but open up-" he thrust his thumb forward again and rubbed hard over the knot of the prostate, "-and take it." He slowly stroked his own cock with his other hand as he watched Alex react. "So I guess you'll just have to lay there and take it until I'm ready to move on." A spiral of intense heat fired from the base of Walter's spine straight up to his skull, and it suddenly occurred to him that he might not be able to hold on much longer. "Which, as it happens, is now." He slowly drew his thumb out of Alex's ass and felt a blinding rush of NEED at how the thoroughly worked-over hole now looked. No longer a tight closed pucker, it was now relaxed and pink and puffy, the entire area flushed, slick with grease, the little hole swollen and pulsing.

Without another word he knelt up on the couch and pressed the tip of his cock to it, groaning at the intense heat that kissed his cock. He pushed forward and the silky hole opened against him, defenseless after all the teasing and torment. He kept hold of his cock for another moment as he pushed a little further and the hole parted further, wider than it had for his thumb. Comfortably on track and more than stiff enough to maintain position, he released his cock and gripped the globes of Alex's ass, lifting and spreading them so he could watch as he slowly... ever so slowly... drove his cock further and further in.

Alex was arching again, his body flexing and tightening, but Walter used his grip on Alex's asscheeks to keep his ass still and spread open. The little hole stretched further, wider, as the thickest part of Walter's cock slid in, forcing it to stay open, unable to relax closed at all.

Walter released the breath he hadn't noticed he was holding, his hands squeezing and releasing, squeezing and releasing, on Alex's cheeks. Just a bit further and... all the way in. He wanted to close his eyes, tip back his head, but he couldn't tear his eyes away from where their bodies joined, where he was possessing Alex so completely. Alex's sobs of pleasure stroked his ears, the low moaning words finally resolving.

"....moremoremore... ohgodmore... yes..."

He slid his hands over the perfect, rounded ass, fondling and stroking, now pressing the cheeks together where his cock was buried between them. Holding Alex still like that, he shifted his own hips back and forth, not withdrawing at all, still deeply seated, just shifting back and forth.

Alex's ass drove back against him in spasm after spasm. "GODYESYESPLEASE..." The yelps and pleas reached a new crescendo as Walter gripped tight again, eased out and thrust back in, slowly at first, then with increasing speed and force. Resting back on his knees, not wanting to lean forward and topple over the couch arm, Walter pumped his hips up, over and over, driving into that hot tight flesh that spread for him so easily, so welcoming. Like where he was always meant to be.

He moved his hands to Alex's hipbones and started pulling Alex back toward him every time he drove up. Alex responded enthusiastically, his upper body rising, his hand bracing against the couch arm and his left leg bracing against the floor, thrusting back until he was practically upright again, riding Walter's cock.

It was too much... Walter felt it gather at the base of his spine, his muscle contract and shiver, then the starburst behind his eyes and he was riding out his orgasm watching Alex pumping wildly back against him.

He slumped back to the couch, gasping for breath and wondering why the room kept tilting. "Holy fuck..." He felt his cock slowly slip free and his overly sensitive nerves went into spasms. "Ah...ah..god..."

At the same time he heard a tortured sound and Alex twisted up against him with another of those throbbing sobs. "No... fuck... don't stop..."

Ah... right. Not done yet. Walter tried to blink the room back into focus, tried to gather his wits along with his breath, but his whole body just wanted to collapse in a jelly heap of hyper-stimulated blissed out nerve endings.

You're making him yours... make it count.

That brought him to, and with a superhuman effort he shifted on the sofa, kneeling up again, sitting on his heels and pulling Alex back against his chest. Alex's head fell back against his shoulder, and his left leg lolled off the couch, his ass seated against Walter's thighs. "Please... I can't take anymore..." Alex sounded almost crazed and Walter looked over his shoulder down his torso to see his cock straining, dark and purple, the tip dripping continuously, twitching.

"Shhh, shhhh... it's okay." Walter wrapped his left arm firmly around Alex's waist, holding him in place on his thighs, and slipped his right hand down to feel for Alex's balls. As he expected, pulled up tight, skin taut, swollen and no doubt aching... he fondled and caressed tenderly, then drew his hand up and wrapped it around Alex's cock and...

Alex's hips went wild, driving his cock against Walter's hand and in three strokes he was coming, screaming as the pent up orgasm ripped through him.

He collapsed just as suddenly and slid down to the couch. Walter moved back, and they spent an ungainly few moments untangling long legs that didn't want to work correctly and sorting themselves into two separate people again. Sprawled side by side on the couch, waiting for their breathing to slow, Alex rolled his head sideways and stared at Walter.

Walter looked over at him. The world returned in a rush.

Holy fuck.

That got totally out of hand. The man was recovering, he could barely move his legs, you had him upside down over a couch arm... his brain is supposed to be healing... FUCK. The things I did...

Horror raced through him and he opened his mouth to apologize, to explain, to do SOMETHING, but nothing came out and-

Alex cleared his throat. "Holy fucking HELL, Skinner, if you'd done that ten years ago, you damn well better believe I'd have tossed over the Consortium like a used Kleenex." He stretched and slid sideways against Walter, his head coming to rest on his shoulder. "Damn. Just... damn."

Walter sat, dazed, relief overwhelming him. "Alex," he managed, "you really need to start calling me Walter."

Alex looked up at him again, and smiled... a slow sweet smile that was so like the one he'd had on his face when he'd first come awake from his death, it stopped Walter's breath. "Walter," he said softly, and it was the most perfect sound, now that Walter knew Alex was fully aware of what he was saying.

"So I convinced you?"

Alex gave a bark of laughter. "Convinced me?" He wriggled his hips and grinned. "Yeah, you could say that."

"Good. Because after you get rested up and all, I want you to show me around your operation."

"I think I planned to be... recuperating for at least a few days, didn't I?" Alex's eyes gleamed in the firelight.

Walter laughed. "Definitely. Easily through Christmas."

Alex's face registered surprise. "Oh, right. It's close, isn't it."

"Yep," Walter slid his arm around Alex and pulled him closer, stroking his right shoulder through the shirt. "I know it hasn't been much in the past for you, Alex. But I think we can make Christmas something... better. Now, and in the future."

Alex made a sound like a laugh. "Hey, stranger things have happened. How did you know I didn't like Christmas?"

Walter paused, wondering when, if, he'd be able to tell Alex. Not now, unfortunately. "Call it a hunch. Or something. Maybe a little bird told me." Sure, why not blame Jeremiah. Assuming he knew Alex didn't do Christmas.

"Ah," Alex said knowingly, rolling his eyes, and Walter knew he'd guessed correctly. "I'll give you the benefit of the doubt on this Christmas thing, Walt."

Walt. He liked the sound of that. "Good." He smiled. "Give me the benefit of the doubt on a lot of things. You're probably going to need to."

Alex nodded, slowly matching the smile. "I guess I can try to do that. After all, you did bring me back to life and all."

Walter flashed on the young Alex in the robe, holding the gun. The image was eclipsed almost instantly by the face in front of him, so much older, smiling and relaxed. "That's the idea," he whispered softly. "That was definitely the plan."

 

THE END

 

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