Alex Krycek sat at a table at the job training center, taking a break after a long day. Since Bruce, his boss, was busy on this particular Saturday, his soon-to-be (at least in Alex's opinion) fiancé, Zoe Harris, was filling in for him and had spent the day answering questions about employment law. Not that she looked very lawyerly at the moment, in jeans and a sweatshirt, her long brunette hair in a ponytail. She sat beside Alex, drinking coffee and fighting the urge to go out for a cigarette. She saw Alex watching her.
"Nothing worse than a junkie needing a fix, huh?" Zoe asked with a grimace.
Alex laughed. "It'll get easier. You seem to be handling it well."
"Ha! Bruce wouldn't say that. He probably thinks I have terminal PMS. But we made a deal. He's giving up those nasty cigars of his and I'm giving up my cigarettes. Neither you nor Walter smoke, do you?"
Thinking of Spender, Alex shuddered. "No," he answered emphatically.
Jack Rivers, a permanent Saturday fixture at the center, walked up then. Alex sat up straighter when he saw the look on Jack's face.
"Jack, what's wrong?" Alex asked, concerned.
"Alex, do you know Chris Chandler from the shelter?"
"Sure. Late forties, long hair and beard, always wearing a green army field jacket."
"That's the guy." Jack paused for a moment, obviously trying to control his emotions. "He was killed, hit by a car this morning. Chris was in a bad way when I met him. One of those guys who fell through the cracks after he came back from Vietnam -- couldn't stop drinking and couldn't keep a job. He was drunk this morning and walked out in front of a car."
"Damn, I'm sorry, Jack. Is there something I can do?" Alex asked.
"Yes," Zoe added. "What can we do?"
"I don't know yet. He had family, a son and daughter, ex-wife. Let's see what happens with them. You know, that could've been me, I'd given up, too."
"Jack!" Zoe exclaimed. "Don't say that. Sit down."
Zoe got up and got Jack some coffee. "You guys, has Bruce mentioned our Memorial Day plans?" They shook their heads. "We're going to the Vietnam Memorial. Bruce is planning to ask everyone to go."
"See, that's the thing about Chris," Jack said. "His name will never be on the Wall, but if it weren't for what he went through in 'Nam, we wouldn't be sitting here talking about his funeral."
Bruce walked in then, going straight to Zoe and kissing her, then saying hi to the guys. He looked around the table.
They filled him in.
"Dammit. I wish we could've gotten to him in time." Bruce had quite a few former shelter residents working for him, several of them vets.
"I know, Bruce, but he wasn't to the point where we could do much for him."
"Bruce," Zoe said. "I told Alex and Jack we're going to the Wall on Memorial Day."
"Yeah, I was planning tell you. Everyone's invited."
"I'll be there," Jack said.
"Me, too," Alex added. "Let me talk to Walter, but I'm sure he'll want to go."
Bruce gave Zoe an appraising look. "You ready to take off?"
"Yes, it's been a long day. Productive, though," she added with a quick smile. Turning back to face Alex, she asked, "Do you need a ride?"
"Please. There's no telling when Walter will be home. He's been working late for weeks. Personally, I think he should stop putting in twelve hours days, but *he* thinks the solution is for us to get a second car."
"Well, if you're not expecting Walter any time soon, come to dinner with us," Bruce offered.
"Thanks, but I thought I'd go home and make dinner for Walter. He hasn't had a home-cooked meal since he started working on that case."
"Okay. Jack? You want to join us?"
"No, I have some more to do here."
"You take it easy. And if we can do anything about Chris, let us know."
When Walter got home, Alex was in the kitchen.
"What smells so good?" he asked as he walked over to give Alex a kiss.
"Just baked chicken and vegetables. We'll be eating soon."
"I'm glad you did this, Alex. I'm so sick of deli sandwiches and fast food."
"I figured as much. Why don't you go get comfortable while I get this on the table?"
Walter gave Alex another kiss and headed upstairs.
Alex had it ready when Walter, now dressed in comfortable sweats and a t-shirt, came back down. They ate quietly, each absorbed in his own thoughts. Alex sent Walter to the living room to relax as he cleaned up. Walter was lying on the couch when Alex came in. He lifted Walter's feet to sit, then started to rub them. Walter grunted his pleasure.
"Walter, you're working too hard again. You need time off."
Walter smiled at the concern in his lover's voice. "I'll be fine. The case from hell is nearly wrapped up. And Memorial Day will be here soon, we both get that off."
"Oh, that reminds me. A guy Jack and I knew from the shelter, a vet, was killed in a car accident."
"How's Jack doing?"
"You know Jack. He feels responsible for all the lost ones. He's pretty down. Also, Walter, Bruce and Zoe are going to the Wall on Memorial Day and they asked everyone to come. What do you think?"
Alex felt Walter's muscles tense and slowly relax as he continued to work his thumb in firm circles on the arch of Walter's left foot.
After a moment, Walter replied, "I was hoping we'd go away over the long weekend."
With a look of surprise on his face, Alex said, "I didn't know we had plans. I told Bruce I'd go." Alex paused, expecting Walter to agree to the change in itinerary.
Walter remained silent.
Alex continued his massage, switching to Walter's right foot. When the silence continued, Alex asked, "You won't go to the Wall with me?"
"I'm sorry, Alex. But we are not going."
"Walter?" Alex asked, perplexed. "Do we have nonrefundable plane tickets or something?"
"No, that isn't it. But we aren't going."
"But Walter," Alex said, his confusion growing, "I told Bruce I *would.* What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong," Walter said, swinging his feet out of Alex's lap, "I'm just tired." He stood up. "Turn off the lights before you come up, okay?"
Alex sat there, stunned. It was hours before Walter normally went to bed and he *never* went to bed without giving him a kiss first. Was Walter mad at him for wanting to go to the Wall rather than go on a weekend jaunt? Did Walter feel he was playing second fiddle to Bruce and Jack? When he was embroiled in the Consortium, friendships were a liability; didn't Walter know how much it meant to him to have friends now that he was free of that mess? Then again, maybe Walter was simply coming down with something. He'd been pushing himself at work and whatever reserve of energy he went into that damn case with had been consumed weeks ago. Obsessively, these thoughts churned repeatedly through Alex's mind.
He considered following Walter up to bed, but Alex knew that if he did, his tossing and turning would prevent Walter from getting much needed rest. Attempting to set his thoughts aside, Alex reached for the television remote control. He found True Lies on one of the movie stations, but when even that couldn't hold his interest, he went into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Looking around for something to munch he noticed a loaf of French bread and decided to put his excess energy to good use. A little while later, having placed a pan of the makings for baked French toast in the refrigerator, Alex felt a little calmer. Taking a second cup of tea and a chocolate biscotti with him, he returned to watch the end of the movie.
Light was streaming into the bedroom when Walter opened his eyes. He rolled over, intending to give his lover a good morning kiss, however Alex's side of the bed was not only empty, but cool to the touch. Apparently Alex had been up for some time.
Walter rolled out bed, glancing at the alarm clock on his way to the bathroom. He kept his alarm set for 5:30, but most mornings he woke up before it went off. To his surprise, the clock read 10:13. He smiled, silently thanking the universe for sending him a lover wonderful enough to allow him to sleep in.
Twenty minutes later, freshly showered and shaved, Walter appeared in the kitchen. Alex sat at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and reading the Sunday paper. Walter leaned over and kissed the top of his head. "Thanks for letting me sleep in. I guess you were right about me working too hard."
Alex reached up to pull Walter down for a kiss. "Want to laze the rest of the day away with me?"
"All ways?" Alex replied with a grin.
Walter grinned back. "Yes -- but only *after* I've read the sports section!"
While pouring himself a cup of coffee, Walter noticed the scent of vanilla and cinnamon in the air. "Mmm, something smells good. What do you have in there?" he asked, indicating the oven with a wave of his coffee mug.
"Baked French toast. It should be ready in about fifteen minutes."
"You're going to spoil me, Alex."
Handing Walter the sports section, Alex replied, "I can't think of anyone who deserves it more."
After their carbohydrate-laden breakfast, Walter said he'd handle cleanup and made shooing motions at Alex. Alex laughed, gave Walter a quick kiss and went out to the living room where he turned on the television. He sunk into his favorite corner of the couch and scrolled through the on-line guide, stopping when he came across a show on cliff diving.
When Walter saw what Alex was watching he couldn't resist teasing Alex. "Indulging in a little eye candy, Alex?"
"Hey!," Alex replied, feigning insult. "This is a serious sport! Did you know the divers risk death every time they dive?"
"By hitting the rocks?"
"No, by entering the water at the wrong angle. They're moving at 60 miles per hour by the time they hit the water; at that speed it doesn't take much for something to go wrong."
They watched as another diver approached the cliff edge, made his final preparations, and then launched himself into the abyss. After a lightning fast series of somersaults and twists, the diver disappeared into the turquoise water. Time seemed to stand still as they waited for the diver to reappear; when he did, with a triumphant yell to the crowds watching from sailboats near the dive site, they grinned at each other.
"Okay, it's a real sport," said Walter.
"And the contestants are bad to look at either," Alex added. "Look at the muscles on that guy." The contestant under discussion was preparing for his dive, loosening his shoulder muscles as he stood at the edge of the cliff.
Walter admired the well defined musculature, then tipped his head back, looking up at Alex. "Reminds me of someone I know," he said.
"You think?" Alex asked. "I'm always afraid my muscles will become lopsided."
"So far whatever you're doing seems to be working. I'll let you know if that changes."
"Thanks," Alex said sincerely.
Walter snuggled up close to Alex. Lethargy, aided by their large breakfast, soon overtook them and they lay cuddled together, half watching the remainder of the competition and half dozing.
It was 3:00 before either felt compelled to move and if it hadn't been for the insistent ringing of the telephone they mightn't have moved even then.
Walter answered with his typical "Skinner."
"Oh, hi Walter. This is Jack. Is Alex around somewhere?"
"Sure, let me put him on." Walter passed the telephone receiver to Alex. "It's Jack."
"Hi Jack. What's up?"
"I just got off the phone with Chris Chandler's ex-wife."
"You didn't have to break the news to her, did you?"
"Thank God, no. The police took care of that yesterday. I called to ask about the funeral arrangements and to offer help with the wake."
"There isn't going to be a funeral."
"What do you mean there isn't going to be one? They have to do *something* with Chris' body."
Taking consolation from the the outrage in Alex's voice, Jack continued, "He's being cremated tomorrow morning at 11:30. I asked if there would be a wake and she said she saw no reason why she should throw good money after bad hosting a party for Chris' low-life friends."
"What a bitch!," Alex replied, causing Walter to raise an expressive eyebrow. "Tell you later," Alex mouthed to Walter.
"She's one bitter lady, that's for sure," Jack commented. He paused, gathering his thoughts. "The coroner is releasing Jack's body tomorrow morning and it's being transported directly to the crematorium. The funeral package Mrs. Chandler purchased permits a half hour for viewing and sets a limit on the number of witnesses. In addition to her and her two children, she's invited her boss and his secretary. Five seats remain and she offered them to me. Bruce and Zoe are taking two of them and I wanted to know if you and Walter would like the remaining two."
"I'll come, but I don't know if Walter will. Let me check with him and get back with you."
"Okay, I'll talk to you later then."
"Later," Alex said, and disconnected the call. He returned the phone to Walter and watched him set in on the cradle. "That was Jack," he said unnecessarily. "He wants to know if we'll go with him to Chris' funeral tomorrow morning."
"11:00 or 11:30, I'm not sure which."
"Alex, I can't do it. I've got a conference call with the Ohio attorney general's office from 9:00 to 11:00, then a meeting from 11:00 to noon. Plus a luncheon with Doggett. He asked to meet with me off premises."
Alex tilted his head, looking at Walter quizzically.
"Maybe he's worried my office has been bugged," he concluded dryly.
"You don't think it is, do you?" Alex asked.
"No, I don't think it's likely."
Walter didn't sound worried, but Alex had no intention of taking any risks where Walter was concerned. "Maybe I should borrow some gear from work so you can check."
Walter nodded thoughtfully. "That might not be a bad idea. But Alex, we don't know what Doggett wants to discuss. It might not have anything to do with the Consortium. For all I know, he discovered albino alligators really do live in the sewers of New York."
Alex thought about this and wondered out loud, "What would they eat? Rats?"
"I don't know. And I must admit I'm more concerned about *we're* going to eat. Have you looked in our refrigerator lately? It's nearly bare."
"We are running low on supplies," Alex agreed. "Do you feel like driving to the grocery store?"
"Not really, but we should go."
Trying not to sound reproachful, Alex said, "We won't need much if you keep working late and missing dinner. If the only meal you're going to eat at home is breakfast, all we need is a carton of eggs and a gallon of milk."
"I don't want to believe it, but you're right. I probably won't make it home for dinner."
"You aren't a machine, Walter. You need to stop working as if you were one."
"You're right. And after this case ends, I will."
Walter grinned at his lover. "Speaking of promises, didn't I promise to take you out to that Thai restaurant you like?" Walter glanced out the window. "It's only a few blocks -- we could walk. And stop at the corner grocery on the way back."
"Okay, but you get to carry the milk. I can't just switch it to my other hand when it starts to feel heavy."
When the men returned to their apartment, the phone was ringing. Inserting his key into the lock, Walter asked, "You called Jack, didn't you?"
"Right before we left for dinner."
Walter pushed the door open and they listened for the answering machine. It whirled and clicked as it played the outgoing message and in the few moments of silence that followed Walter put the milk and eggs into the refrigerator. Having shucked himself of his leather jacket, Alex held his hand out for the one Walter was wearing as Bruce's voice came through the answering machine.
"Walter," the voice said, "I hear you aren't coming to the funeral tomorrow. I know you didn't know Chris, but I was hoping to see you there. I want to talk to you about our plans for Memorial Day. Give me a call when you have a minute."
Walter spun about, facing Alex. Sounding enraged, he demanded, "Didn't you tell him I'm not going?"
"Of course I did. I'm sure he's hoping to change your mind."
"Well, it isn't going to be changed!"
"So I see," Alex replied with some asperity. "I don't see what the big deal is, but if you don't want to go, you don't have to."
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Fine," Alex snapped back. He left the kitchen and walked toward the hall door. Alex went as far as the hall closet and hung up Walter's jacket. He then stood there for a moment as if he were deciding something and the thought flashed through Walter's mind that Alex was going to walk out.
Before Walter could think of something to say to convince Alex to stay, Alex had returned to his side. "Are you sure you aren't coming down with something? You've gone completely pale. Was the walk too much?"
"I'm just tired," Walter said. And he did sound tired, like a man who has borne the weight of the world on his shoulders for far too long.
"Go on up to bed. I'll be right behind you."
Walter nodded and headed up the stairs.
Alex locked up the apartment and turned on the alarm. Before following Walter to bed, he stopped at the foot of the stairs and glanced around the first floor of the apartment. Everything he saw -- the furniture, the art on the wall, the CD collection, every single thing his eyes fell upon-- belonged to Walter. And yet whenever he thought of home, this was exactly what he pictured. "I'm damn lucky," Alex thought, "and it's time I showed Walter how much I appreciate him. Especially after falling asleep on the couch last night."
Alex returned to the kitchen and put a cup of water into the microwave. When it reached a boil, he removed the cup and poured the water into the stoneware massage oil warmer Walter had found on one of his on-line shopping forays. Carrying the warmer, Alex climbed the stairs to the master bedroom. Walter was brushing his teeth when Alex reached around him to remove the bottle of massage oil from the cabinet.
"Who's that for," Walter mumbled around his toothbrush, "you or me?"
Alex poured a portion of the oil into depression on the warmer. "You."
The single word growled in Alex's whiskey rough voice was enough to harden Walter's cock. He nodded and then rinsed his mouth. "Lucky me," he said and pulled Alex in for a kiss.
After a long and delightful minute, Alex pushed Walter away. "I want to brush my teeth while the oil warms up. When I'm done, I'll give you a full body massage."
Helpfully, Walter volunteered, "I'll go turn down the covers."
When Alex walked into the bedroom, the sight of Walter laying on his stomach spread out the large bed literally made Alex's hand itch. Eager to touch the muscular body stretched out before him, he set the massage oil warmer on the night stand and then quickly pulled off his clothing and removed his prosthesis. Joining Walter on the bed, Alex knelt over the prone body and used the ladle to drizzle warm oil over Walter's broad back. Using the the palm of his hand, he rubbed the scented oil into the golden flesh. Walter sighed in appreciation as Alex worked. The warm oil felt wonderful and Alex's hand smoothly gliding over his skin felt even better.
Alex spent time loosening Walter's shoulders. It was inevitable that he would mourn the loss of his arm and he did, but an encounter with a Buddhist monk during his exile in Hong Kong had exposed Alex to the zen concept of mindfulness. With the monk's help, Alex had learned to direct his attention to the present moment. Completely engaged, Alex paid no attention to the passage of time, nor did thoughts of the past or future intrude. Alex's focus became the texture of Walter's skin, the warm slipperiness of the oil, the interplay between Walter's muscles and his own, the pleasure that touching this strong male body brought.
Utterly relaxed by the thorough massage, thoughts slowly drifted through Walter's mind until he fell into a deep slumber and they stopped completely. When Alex quietly requested he turn over, Walter's only response was a sleepy grumble. Alex gently nudged him, again trying to get him to turn, but Walter's refusal to move was not negotiable.
Admitting his plan to bring Walter to a slow sexual boil had met with resounding defeat, Alex looked down at his half hard cock and shook his head ruefully. "Tomorrow," he promised, then snuggled in close to his sleeping lover and pulled up the covers.
Seemingly moments later, the alarm clocked blared its wake up call. Walter silenced the offending device and rose to his feet.
Following his usual morning routine, Alex stayed in bed for an extra few minutes, stretching his long limbs while mentally reviewing the day's agenda. Although not the critical step it had once been, the habit was deeply ingrained and had not changed during the time he'd been living with Walter. When he finished his review, Alex rolled out of bed and walked to the bathroom to empty his bladder.
"Hey there, Lazybones," Walter said with a lecherous grin, "you going to shower with me now that you're out of bed?"
Although not a morning person, Alex couldn't help but smile as he moved in for his morning kiss.
When they broke for air, Walter glanced at the clock and mumbled something about needing to get up earlier.
"Earlier?" Alex protested. "What do you think you are? A rooster?"
Walter grinned. "Can you think of anything sexier?"
Alex stared at him incredulously. "Sexier than a *chicken*?"
"Than a nice big cock," Walter corrected, reaching for Alex's.
"It's too damn early for word games," Alex grumbled. But he thrust his hips, enjoying the friction of Walter's hand on his growing erection.
"How about too early to jack off?"
In response, Alex thrust again.
"Guess not," Walter said with a laugh and using Alex's cock as a leash, pulled him toward the shower. A split second before Walter's hand touched the shower door he heard the telephone. It was highly unusual to hear it ring this early in the morning and, when it did, it inevitably served as a portend of bad news.
Walter looked into Alex's eyes and saw resignation. But all he said was "You better answer that."
Walter dutifully trotted to the telephone in the bedroom and picked it up. Meanwhile, Alex turned on the shower and stepped inside. He would know soon enough what gone wrong.
Alex was rinsing the soap out of his hair when Walter returned to the bathroom and announced "That was the Director's secretary. The Stuyvesant case has blown up in our faces."
"Yesterday afternoon the Attorney General told the Director that in his legal opinion the drug evidence will be ruled inadmissible. And last night the two most important witnesses disappeared from protective custody. The Director wants to know what I'm doing about it and demands a full report be on his desk by 9:00 this morning."
"Exactly," Walter said and Alex thought he could hear the muscles in Walter's jaw clenching with pent up fury and disbelief.
"Want me to catch a cab to Jack's place?"
"You don't mind?"
"Nah, I can manage," Alex said and he turned off the water. "Is it okay with you if I borrow your garment bag?" He stepped out of the shower and reached for his towel, adding "My first class this morning is rape- prevention. I won't want to put on my suit until afterwards."
"Sure, that's fine.
Alex gave Walter a quick buss on the lips. "Thanks," he said, and exited the room.
Jack was waiting on the sidewalk when the cab driver pulled up to the curbside. Alex told the driver to wait a moment, and rolled down the window. He greeted his friend with "I didn't expect to find you out here. I'm not late, am I?"
Jack gave him a forlorn smile and shook his head. "I was thinking about Chris. Needed to get out of my apartment and into the fresh air."
Alex nodded, understanding where Jack was coming from. Noticing the carry-on bag near Jack's feet, Alex asked "Want to walk or to take the cab to Mosely?" They typically walked the two short miles to work, but then they didn't normally have luggage to contend with.
"It's here, we might as well use it."
Respecting Jack's somber mood, Alex was quiet during the drive to Mosely Security. When they arrived, Jack used his keys to unlock the building and punched his code into the security system. "You still up for a run?" Alex asked.
Jack turned the latch on the door, locking them inside the building. "Not really, but I know me. If I start excusing myself because I'm not in the mood, I may never run again."
There was wisdom in that, Alex thought. He too was familiar with slippery slopes and had lost his own footing more times than he cared to remember.
Together, they walked to the employee's locker room. Alex hung Walter's garment bag from one of the empty lockers and then changed into his running clothes. Jack unpacked the slacks and dark grey tweed jacket-- what Alex suspected was Jack's best clothing -- and carefully hung them inside another locker.
Jack and Alex were in agreement that they should vary where they ran, although for completely different reasons. Jack simply liked variety and didn't want to become bored. Alex, aware that he made enemies both in and out of the Consortium, refused to put himself at risk of assault, kidnapping, and murder by allowing himself to fall into a predictable pattern when he could easily avoid doing so.
After a friendly debate, the men decided that they would run the Mall. Jack had good memories of visiting the Lincoln Memorial with his children and, although not much interested in architecture, Alex always found himself drawn to clean lines of the Washington Monument. Running from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol Building would give them a run of about three miles, a distance that would push Jack's limits but not exceed his ability.
Alex pulled off his aptly named sweatshirt. "It's a good thing we have a showers here. I don't think any of my students would appreciate having to work closely with me today if we didn't."
Jack sat on the bench, peeling off his socks. "You can say that again."
"Are you saying I stink?" Alex asked with a wicked grin.
"Hey, if the shoe fits...," Jack replied, laughing.
Alex laughed with him, enjoying the lighter mood. Jack's speed and endurance increased weekly and they had made excellent time during their run. Jack was looking forward to his first 5K race, Damien's Race for Recovery. During today's run, Jack asked Alex if we would consider racing with him, and Alex agreed to think about it. Truthfully, Alex found the idea of participating in an organized race off-putting, but he knew the race raised money for charities involved with fighting addictions and that as such it held a special appeal for Jack.
The morning classes passed without incident and before long Alex found himself back in the locker room, taking another quick shower and getting dressed for the funeral. It felt odd to be wearing a suit, but looking at himself in the full length mirror, he had to admit that Walter had been right when he picked it out. He did look good.
Bruce stuck his head around the corner and caught Alex admiring himself in the mirror. "Alex," he teased, "stop preening and get your buns out here. We're about to leave."
"Aye aye, boss," Alex replied. It had taken him a long time to get to this point, to be comfortable bantering with Bruce. Alex found the whole civilian world took some adjustment, but having an employer one respected rather than feared was in a class by itself. He liked Bruce a great deal, enjoyed the man's company and his friendship, and held great respect for his business acumen and forthright manner. But the mixture of admiration, respect, and friendship he felt sometimes made it difficult to know how to respond. Blind obedience, no matter how hated the master, was so much simpler.
Jack was still at his desk when Alex left the locker room but Bruce was nowhere to be seen. Alex walked toward Jack's desk in time to hear him comment on the string of pearls around Zoe's long, elegant neck.
"These old things?" Zoe asked, disrespectfully flipping the long strand of pearls. Jack looked at her with surprise but Alex noticed that she was struggling to hold off a grin. The twinkle in her eyes grew as she continued, "Confidentially, I bought them with my first paycheck. I spent the rest of the month praying I wouldn't run out of gas or groceries before the next payday, but I've never regretted the purchase."
Bruce's Hummer pulled up by the front door. "Time to go," Alex commented, indicating the large pewter-colored vehicle.
Jack sighed. "Let's get this over with."
Alex slouched in his favorite corner of the couch, bracing a saucer against his chest with his prosthetic hand. With his good hand, he lifted a cup of tea to his lips and took a sip. He'd tried to call Walter when he'd returned from the funeral, but Walter wasn't answering his cell. He tried calling Walter's secretary, but all she would say was that AD Skinner was in a meeting and could not be disturbed. When she asked if she could take a message, Alex politely declined. Although he had a feeling Walter's secretary knew Walter had someone in his life now, and probably suspected that person was another man, he felt no need to confirm the suspicion. Homophobia was alive and well in the FBI and there was no reason to give Walter's political rivals ammunition to use against him.
He'd tried the cell phone again, after teaching his two afternoon classes. Walter still wasn't answering but this time he'd left a message, simply stating that Bruce would be giving him a ride home.
He'd half expected to find a message from Walter on the answering machine when he reached the apartment, but the only recording was someone claiming he'd won a free three-day trip to Florida. Alex erased the message before it had time to finish playing.
As he relaxed on the couch, Alex thought about the events of the day. His day had turned out to have been much better than he expected, and he wondered if Walter would be able to say the same.
The funeral had been interesting for a variety of reasons. First, the former Mrs. Chandler was nothing like he pictured. She looked tired, almost subdued, but showed very few signs of grief. She was carefully dressed, as were her children, whom were younger than Alex expected. The girl was in her early teens and the boy a few years younger. They, unlike their mother, showed signs of recent tears.
For someone who had once been in the business of taking lives, Alex had been to remarkably few funerals and he found the cremation fascinating. It was like something out of a movie, the coffin moving on a conveyor to a furnace hidden behind velvet drapes. Alex recalled seeing flames wicking as the coffin entered the chamber and watching the curtain fall closed when the passed beyond it. The witnesses had then been ushered out of the building and Mrs. Chandler informed that the cremains would be ready for pickup in another four or five hours.
Perhaps the biggest surprise had been that Zoe was well acquainted with Mrs. Chandler's boss. He could still hear Zoe's voice ringing with delight when she squealed "Reggie! What are *you* doing here?!" Alex laughed, remembering the variety of reactions her greeting provoked. Bruce stiffened and looked like he wanted to tear the guy's throat out. Reggie either didn't notice the threat emanating from Bruce or dismissed it as inconsequential; he merely extended his hand and said in a deep and droll voice, "The same as you, I imagine." Zoe laughed, Bruce relaxed, and Mrs. Chandler looked from one face to the next in confusion as her children, in turn, looked to her for clues as to how they should behave.
At that point, Jack had stepped forward, and with his usual easy grace, announced that introductions were in order. He introduced himself to Mrs. Chandler and extended his condolences to her and the children. Zoe followed his lead, introducing herself and Bruce, and then introducing Bruce to Reginald Davenport and his mousy secretary, Miss Brown. Davenport, she explained, had been her mentor when she joined her first law firm. He'd left to form his own practice and tried to convince her to join him as a partner in the new firm. She had declined the offer and now they were friendly rivals, meeting occasionally to do battle in court.
Mrs. Chandler, as it developed, worked for Davenport as a paralegal, a career she'd fallen into by accident. When Chris' drinking had lead to a drunk driving arrest, she knew they couldn't afford the legal bills, so she'd volunteered to work for his lawyer free of charge for six months if he'd take the case. One day a client had come in needed a form filled out while Davenport was out of the office. By that time she'd done the form enough times to feel comfortable with the task and gone ahead and filled everything out. When Davenport returned from court, she showed him the completed form, ready for him to file. Impressed, he began letting her work independently, coming to him when she had questions or ran into a situations she didn't know how to handle. Before long she was conducting legal research and eventually they struck a deal, in exchange for working for him after graduation, he'd provide a no-interest loan for tuition in the paralegal program at George Washington University.
So oddly, even though they were at the funeral of a Vietnam-era vet, what drew the two sets of mourners together was the legal profession. Bruce, wanting to make his claim on Zoe clear to Davenport, invited the group to lunch after the funeral.
Conversation during lunch was surprisingly easy. Zoe asked how Mrs. Chandler -- Anita -- had met Chris. After his release from the army, Chris had come to Washington to join the protests against the war. He felt that as someone who had been there, who had not fled to Canada but who had answered his country's call, his opinion would be heard and respected by those in congress. It wasn't, of course. But he'd met Anita during one of the vigils and they'd begun living together.
Zoe and Bruce spoke of their friendship with Chris, as did Jack and Alex. Mrs. Chandler's boy, Jeff, wanted to know how Bruce lost his leg, so Bruce told him a somewhat sanitized version of the story. That lead to Davenport and Bruce trading war stories. Mrs. Chandler relayed the few stories Chris had told her about Vietnam and went on to describe how his life had been changed by his experiences there.
After the troops were called home, Chris had settled down and gotten a job working for a bottling plant. Things were good between them, so after a few years went by they decided it was time to get married and to have kids of their own. Although Chris had not stopped drinking completely, he was a good father, sitting up with the babies, holding them all night when the were sick or teething. Things were going reasonably well until the economy went south. The bottling plant began laying people off and Chris, who had issues with authority figures, was one of the first to go. He had no trouble getting a new job at a rival plant though, as he was known as a hard worker when he wasn't bickering with management. But before long, management problems and a poor economy lead to another bout of unemployment. Chris' drinking increased as the longevity of his jobs decreased. Anita asked him to get help, and suggested he seek alcohol treatment at the VA. Under protest, he'd gone, only to discover that the VA was run just like the army -- by pencil- pushers who delighted in enforcing rigid and archaic rules. They demanded proof that Chris' alcoholism was a service-related problem and questioned his veracity when they learned his drinking had not grown out of control until nearly twenty years after he'd left the service. Angered, Chris stomped out of the VA vowing never to return. When Chris' drinking and chronic unemployment began to affect the children, Anita felt she had no choice but to ask for a divorce. Unable to stop drinking or to find an alternative, Chris agreed.
When Alex's thoughts turned to his own alcoholic father, he decided it was time to think about something else. He took his now empty cup of tea to the kitchen and put it in the dishwasher, then returned to the living room and pulled a book called _Dangerous Men_ off the shelf. He started reading.
He was still at it when a very tired Walter Skinner opened the apartment door. Placing his book on the end table, Alex stood to greet his lover. "I missed you," he said, helping Walter remove his overcoat and placing it on a coat-hanger.
Clearly exhausted, Walter smiled back at him. "Me too," he said. When Alex turned back from hanging the coat in the hall closet, Walter put a hand on Alex's shoulder and just looked at him.
Alex tilted his head. "What?" he asked quizzically.
"You," was all Walter said, and reeled him in for a kiss. After a short sweet kiss, Walter pulled his head back. "Did you eat?"
"I wasn't hungry. How about you?"
"I hit McDonald's on the way home. I worked through lunch and I was starving."
"You look like you had a rough day," Alex observed. "Want to tell me about it?"
"It was about what you'd expect. The Director read me the riot act about the Stuyvesant case. I spent all morning listening to excuses from the agents then had to write a report outlining the history of the case, actions the bureau has taken, and possible avenues of future investigation.
"No sooner was the report on the director's desk when another agent came in with critical information. It seems inter-agency rivalries are getting in the way again. A local law enforcement group has been butting heads with our people regarding jurisdiction. And if that weren't enough, one of our agents has a family connection to one suspects, and we suspect he's been leaking information."
"Lovely," Alex said sarcastically.
"You've got it," Walter responded. "That was my whole day, interviewing agents and writing reports for the director."
"You ever think of leaving the bureau?"
"All the time," Walter chuckled. "I'm not ready to quit yet. But give me a few more days like this one and I may change my mind!"
"So," Alex asked, "what do you want to do right now?"
Walter pulled Alex to him. "More of this," and gave him a kiss.
Together, they moved up the stairs to the master bedroom, loosening their clothing as they went. Walter said "Let me brush my teeth. Once I lay down nothing's going to get me out of bed until morning."
Green fire burned in Alex's eyes as he moved to the bedroom and began pulling off his clothing.
Walter walked into the bedroom, holding his toothbrush in one hand and squeezing toothpaste on to it with the other. "I nearly forgot to ask, how was the funeral?"
"It was fine."
"Did Chris receive Military Funeral Honors?"
"Yes, but if looks could kill, the nation would have lost two soldiers today.
"It seems that Mrs. Chandler objected to the recording of taps -- said it just figured that an country that refused to help her husband while he was alive would send two soldiers and a recording to his funeral."
"No wonder you called her a bitch the other day."
"She isn't though, not really. She had a hard life, coping with her alcoholic husband. And other than the initial glare, she was polite to the officers who gave her the flag. I think she was just caught unaware. Besides, who can blame her for being angry? Chris had a tough life but he's beyond suffering now. She still has to cope with everything that happened directly to Chris and to her by proxy."
"How's Jack handling it?"
"Better, now that he knows Mrs. Chandler will be okay. Jack told me that he took her aside at lunch and asked if she'd need financial assistance. Jack said she seemed somewhat surprised by the question. She thanked him for his consideration but pointed out that she' s been functioning as a single mother for nearly a decade and that financially speaking the family is better off with Chris dead. He was paying only $50/month in child support, but now that he's dead the government will pay death benefits that add up to more than $900/month."
Walter walked back into the bathroom and resumed brushing his teeth. When he came back to the bedroom, Alex was sitting up against the pillows, still thinking about Vietnam.
"Bruce told the story of how he lost his leg at lunch today. I don't think I'd ever heard his version of the story before."
"Is it that much different than mine?" Walter tried to joke.
Alex shook his head. "Just from a different perspective. You really went through some hard times over there, didn't you?"
Silently, Walter agreed he had. Aloud, he said, "You look good enough to eat." And put action to words.
The first rasp of Walter's tongue up Alex's thick cock brought forth a long sexy moan followed by an incomprehensible stream of Russian. Although Walter was unable to understand the words, the language of Alex's body told him everything he need to know and Alex was soon on the brink of orgasm.
Wildly, Alex thrust backwards, pulling his cock from Walter's hot mouth. "No," he cried, "not yet. Not until you're in me."
Walter moved to his hands and knees and moved down the bed. Grabbing Alex's knees, he pulled Alex until his ass was in the middle of the bed. Then, nearly pouncing on the strong sexy body laying beneath him panting, Walter worked his way from Alex's belly-button to his tight little nipples. Alex writhed beneath him, demanding that Walter fuck him, hard and fast and right now.
Walter lifted his head and looked at the debauched sight before him. "You're so damn sexy, Alex," he growled.
Alex stretched his hand toward the night-stand, frantically reaching for the condoms and lube stored there as his mouth was relentlessly plundered and his cock throbbed in time with his heartbeat. After minutes of blind groping, Alex made contact with the condoms and pulled one into bed with him pushed it into Walter's hand. "On you," he pleaded. "Now."
Walter tore open the package and began to roll it over the head of his cock. To his dismay, his erection began to flag as did. He'd barely gotten the thin membrane over his cockhead when he went completely soft. "Oh shit," he murmured.
"What?" Alex asked, abandoning the kiss he had been about to place and opening his eyes. He saw Walter's flaccid cock. "Shit no," he softly echoed, and moved to suck Walter back to hardness.
But Walter's sex organs were not in a playful mood and no matter what Alex did, Walter remained soft. After a while, Walter sadly stated the truth. "This isn't working. I'm sorry Alex, but I don't think I'll be able to get hard again tonight." He wondered if his inability to perform would change Alex's feelings about him. He'd never had a sexual problem before. And what if this became a regular occurrence? Would Alex still love him if he became impotent? Would Alex leave him or start looking to other men for sexual satisfaction? "I'm sorry," he repeated.
Feeling helpless, Alex lost his own hard-on. It was obvious that Walter was distraught over the loss of his erection, and maybe a little embarrassed. Alex thought about how he'd feel if it were him and concluded that the worst thing would be having his partner make a big deal out of it. "You know what they say about stress, and erectile dysfunction, let's get you rested and we'll be back to fucking like weasels in no time."
"Weasels, Alex?" Walter asked, reassured by Alex's willingness to overlook his failure.
"Beats gerbils, doesn't it?," he asked.
Walter laughed. "That it does, that it does," and pulled Alex up against his chest. "Love you," he said, and before he knew it, he was asleep.
When the alarm went off at the usual time the next morning, Walter seemed his normal self. Alex, on the other hand, was groggy. He hadn't been able to fall asleep and had laid on Walter's chest, listening to his heartbeat and thinking about life and death. He had fallen back into sleep as soon as Walter shut off the alarm and didn't hear Walter's calling him to come take a shower with him.
When Walter returned to the bedroom to dress, he discovered Alex still unconscious on the bed. He gently shook Alex's shoulder, "Come on, sleepy-head, it's time to get up."
Alex raised his head and tried to clear this thoughts by giving his head a good shake. "Huh? What?" He tried to focus his bleary eyes on Walter and saw the wet hair on his chest. Deducing that Walter had already taken his shower, he asked, "What time is it? Why didn't you wake me?"
"Ten to six. Because I thought you'd heard the alarm."
"Oh," Alex said and shook his head again. He yawned hugely, blinked his eyes a few times, and tried to sit up. "I'm really out of it this morning." He yawned once more.
Walter held out his hand, "Come on, a shower will help wake you up." Alex put his hand in Walter's, accepting the upward pull that helped propel him out of bed and towards the bathroom. "I'll have tea ready for you when you're done," Walter called after him, admiring Alex's shapely behind as it moved away.
Alex accepted the large mug of tea gratefully. With his still wet hair falling over his forehead, he looked extremely kissable but only marginally more awake. Walter told him as much and got a cute little pout in response. Which Walter then felt obliged to kiss away.
Walter held out a plate containing two pieces of strawberry jam covered toast. "I know you aren't hungry in the morning, but eat this anyway."
Alex nodded and lifted one of the two pieces. He nibbled a corner. "Sugar and caffeine," he said, "nature's two finest foods."
"Those aren't food, they're ingredients," contradicted Walter. "Nature's finest food, he continued, is Scotch."
"That's not food either, that's a drink." He thought for a "moment. Chocolate. That's nature's finest food."
Walter objected, "That can be a drink too."
"More proof it's nature's finest food. Perfect in solid *and* liquid form!"
"Okay, Mister Chocolate Fiend, eat your breakfast and let's get a move- on."
Alex swallowed another bite of toast. "Anything I should know about today?"
"I don't think so. I had to skip having lunch with Doggett yesterday so I'll probably have lunch with him today if he's not out on assignment somewhere. It may be another late night though. If it looks like it will, I'll try to give you a call."
"Okay," Alex said and popped the remaining piece of toast into his mouth. He got up and placed the dish in the dishwasher, then rinsed his fingers. "As soon as I grab my jacket, I'll be ready to roll."
Walter met him at the door, punched in the alarm code and locked the door behind them. As they walked to the elevator Walter asked, "Have you given any more consideration to getting your own car?"
"You getting tired of giving me rides?"
"No, it isn't that. But don't you get tired of waiting for me when you don't know when I'll be free to come get you? Or of having to ask your friends for a ride when you get tired of waiting?"
"I don't mind waiting, at least not most of the time. And I try not to ask for rides too often. I don't want to become a burden to you or to anyone else."
"You aren't a burden, I just wanted to know if you'd thought about it."
When Alex remained silent, Walter concluded he hadn't, but Alex had given the idea of getting a second car some thought. On the one hand, having one would give him more freedom, but on the other, he wasn't sure he wanted to be that free. He enjoyed the time he spent with Walter, even when it was just a few minutes in the car going from point A to point B. And he was a wondered whether Walter would be even less inclined to leave work at a reasonable hour if Alex weren't waiting for him. Would buying a car enable Walter's work-a-holic tendencies?
Before he could reach a conclusion, Walter pulled into the parking lot at Mosely. Alex glanced around and not seeing anyone, gave Walter a quick kiss. "See you later," he said, climbing out of the car.
Walter watched him gain entrance to the building before pulling away.
Walter worked late again that night, and the next. Both nights he came home just a few minutes shy of midnight. The first night he found Alex reading downstairs on the couch. The second night Alex was upstairs, propped up on the pillows. He put _Dangerous Men_ on the table and smiled at Walter. "Welcome home."
Walter muttered "Glad to be here," and looked like he was ready to fall over. He yawned and reached down to ruffle Alex's soft brown hair. "I wanted to have dinner with you tonight."
"Did you have some?" Alex asked, concerned.
"Yeah, Kim ordered something for me before she left the office. She's going to make someone a good wife and mother one of these days."
"As long as it isn't you," Alex said, suddenly jealous. "You're mine."
"Yours," Walter agreed happily. He straightened up and wandered to the bathroom, tossing his clothes into the laundry hamper as he went. Alex heard the sound of running water and teeth being brushed.
When Walter joined him in bed, Alex rolled on his side to reach the bedside lamp and turn it off. Walter moved closer so that when Alex relaxed his body, he was spooned closely behind. Walter wrapped his arms around Alex, murmured, "Love you," kissed his neck, and fell asleep.
Once again, Alex stayed awake, wondering when and if he'd ever get his lover back. He threw in a few curses at inept FBI agents, congressional funding, and the director for good measure.
Friday morning found both men tired and grumpy. Alex had dark circles under his eyes and moved with much less grace than typical. Walter was too tired to engage in verbal banter and kept conversation to simple requests and statements of fact. When he dropped Alex off at Jack's for his morning run, Walter would have felt relief if he had the energy to feel anything at all.
Jack and Alex ran a course new to them. The change suited both men, Alex because Jack was too engrosed in the scenery to make conversation and Jack because it meant he was a step closer to running the race. As the exercise began to release the endorphins, Alex's mood improved and he began to enjoy the Inauguration Run. They began near the White House, running down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol Building. Entering the road through the grounds at the point where Pennsylvania Avenue dead- ends, they followed a gentle arc up Capitol Hill to the back side. When they reached the intersection with Second Street, they took it past the the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress. Circling the Capitol Building, the came back down the road through the grounds on the other side of the building, returned to Pennsylvania Avenue and ran back towards the White House.
From the White House, the men walked back to Mosely Security, using the time to cool down and people watch. Summer was on its way and the people working in, or visiting, the nation's capitol were beginning to wear their more revealing summer clothes.
After cooling down with the walk back and a hot shower, Alex was starting to feel like himself. He taught his first class without incident and was getting prepared for his second class of the day when Jack called him out of the classroom. "Walter's on the phone and wants to know if you have a minute."
"For Walter," Alex grinned, "I'd make time."
It didn't take long for Alex to lose the smile from his face. Seconds after Alex spoke his greeting into the handset, Walter said "Alex, I'm taking a flight to Dallas this evening. I'm taking charge of the Stuyvesant case and will be staying there until it's been resolved."
Alex choked back his emotions. In a very good imitation of his normal speaking voice he asked, "Any idea of how long you'll be gone?"
"A week, maybe two."
"Anything you want me to do?"
"Yes, have dinner with me tonight and then drive me to the airport."
Using old skills, Alex concentrated on his work. He taught his classes as calmly and efficiently as he always did and his students were none the wiser that their instructor was feeling unaccustomed emotions that he had no real idea of how to handle.
The day progressed and to all appearances, Alex was his normal self. He chatted with Zoe when she came in to visit with Bruce and to talk him into going to a movie with her that night, he helped Jack clean out the office refrigerator and dispose of the moldy leftovers that were threatening to take over. Walter met Alex in the parking lot shortly after he'd made a trip to dumpster with a highly odoriferous trash bag. Rolling down the window he tried to smile and asked if Alex was ready.
"Let me go wash my hands and say good night to Jack."
Alex walked back inside the building, wondering why he felt nervous, almost as if he were a virgin going on his first date. He hadn't yet formulated an answer when he joined Walter in his car.
"Any place in particular you'd like to go?" Walter asked.
"Anywhere you like. You're the one who's leaving town."
'And you're the one I'm leaving behind,' Walter thought, but he didn't say it. Nor did he say, 'I wish I didn't have to go,' but he thought it all the same.
"Ruth Chris Steakhouse?" Walter asked.
"Pulling out the big guns, huh?" Alex replied.
Walter glanced at his lover, the street lights shining on his glasses preventing Alex from seeing the longing in his eyes. "You deserve a good meal before I have to leave. Since the FBI is making me go, the least it can do is buy us a good dinner first."
"They do have excellent steak," is all he said.
Skinner trusted Alex with the details of the case, but he knew that being overheard discussing it would lead to immediate dismissal from the FBI and the loss of his pension. And Alex, too, knew the rules regarding such disclosure. He didn't ask. Looking for something to discuss, Walter thought of his lunch with Doggett, which had finally occurred earlier that day.
"I had lunch with Doggett," he began.
Alex cocked an eyebrow. "Oh?" he asked.
"You were right, Mulder put him up to it."
Alex began to lose his appetite. "What did he say?" he asked, needing to know the worst.
"That Mulder had asked him to talk to me. He said in that direct way of his that Mulder told him I was living with a dangerous, evil man, and that he was concerned about it."
"Yes. Doggett also said that he respects me, and while he doesn't know *you*, he trusts my judgment. He doesn't care that I'm gay, just wants me to be happy. And he'll be glad to help, whether it's to fight you, if you're blackmailing me, or if it's Mulder causing trouble."
Alex sat there, food forgotten. The stress of the last few weeks, combined with the idea of Walter going away caused him to totally misinterpret what Walter was trying to tell him. All he could hear was Doggett didn't know him, was on Mulder's side, and wanted to protect Walter. Alex felt anger and hopelessness. How long before they succeeded?
Walter noticed Alex had grown quiet, and was ignoring his food. But, hell, he was, too. He was *so* tired, and now he had to go to Dallas. The food was excellent, but his heart just wasn't in it. He ate a little, then pushed the plate aside.
The ride home was equally silent, each man deep in his own thoughts. As Walter packed, Alex helped him, but was unable to tell him what he desperately wanted to. That he would miss Walter, and that he was scared, and please, don't let them convince you.
Walter also had things he needed to say, but wouldn't. That he would miss Alex, that their lives would be normal again, and please, don't give up on me.
In the end, they said very little, And when they got to the airport, Walter insisted that Alex not come in with him.
"You need to get some rest. Go home and relax. I'll be home as soon as I can. And I'll keep in touch."
"Take care of yourself, Walter."
Walter gave Alex a quick kiss and was gone.
Alex parked Walter's car in the apartment's garage, and took the elevator up to the 17th floor. Taking Walter's advice, he tried to relax and started to get ready for bed. It was odd, he thought, how the apartment didn't feel this empty on nights Walter worked late. Maybe knowing Walter would soon be on his way home was what made the difference.
He moved around the big bed, trying to get comfortable. It didn't feel right, sleeping without Walter. Eventually he found himself stretched out on his stomach with his face buried in Walter's pillow. He was glad they hadn't had time to change the sheets that morning; at least Walter's scent would be with him while they were apart. Feeling like a complete dork, Alex kissed the pillow and said aloud, "Good night, Walter. I love you where ever you are."
He'd forgotten to turn off the alarm, so Alex woke up when the alarm went off at 5:30 Saturday morning. He thought about going back to sleep but the more he thought about it, the more awake he became. Alex got up and used the toilet, then wandered out to the kitchen. He looked in the refrigerator and was reminded of how low he and Walter had run on supplies during the previous few weeks. Well, he had Walter's car, he could make a trip to the grocery store. Alex moved around the kitchen, looking into the cupboards and trying to remember what sorts of things Walter liked to keep on hand. He put some water on to boil and started writing out a shopping list.
The trip to the grocery store was uneventful, albeit expensive. And Alex cheered himself up by buying some frozen foods he thought he'd enjoy having while Walter was out of town. Walter had a low opinion of frozen and pre-packaged foods.
Discovering that re-stocking the cupboards had made him feel better, Alex decided to continue with this streak of domesticity. Excepting Walter's pillow, he stripped off the sheets and remade the bed. He put the sheets in the washing machine, added soap and turned it on, then went off in search of more things to wash. He gathered up the dirty towels from the master bath, the half bath on the first floor, and the kitchen, and tossed them on the floor in front of the washing machine. That would be his next load. He went back upstairs and brought the entire hamper down, sorting the dry cleaning from the wash. While the washer completed its cycle, he bundled Walter's suits together and drove to the dry-cleaners to drop them off. Returning to the apartment, he put the now clean sheets into the dryer and started his next load of laundry. He ran the vacuum around the apartment and, for want of something better to do, dusted the shelves in the living room. Returning to the kitchen, he noticed the counters and stove top could stand a good cleaning and gave them a thorough scrubbing.
Before the afternoon was over, the apartment was sparkling clean and Alex was exhausted. Although he was in great physical shape between the workouts he received teaching self-defense classes and the running he did with Jack, cleaning had used muscles that didn't normally receive much exercise. Alex twisted his shoulders, back, and neck until the muscles loosened, then lay down on the carpeted floor and repeated the motions. As the muscles lost their tension, Alex too relaxed and he fell into a deep sleep.
When the telephone awakened him, hours later, Alex was unaccustomedly disoriented. He had been blessed with the type of mind that, instantaneous with waking, knew the answer to three important questions: his identity, his location, and the situation he would find himself in. During his entire life, only twice before had it failed to inform him of these things immediately upon regaining consciousness. Once was during his ill-fated trip to Tunguska, and the other was while he'd been working for the Consortium, hopping from one city to the next so quickly that he'd lost track of where he was. It took him a moment to remember that he was laying on the living room floor and that the cause of his stiff and sore muscles was nothing more ominous than housework.
The answering machine's outgoing message was still playing as he as he struggled to pull his thoughts together. He stood and approached the answering machine. Only if the caller were Walter (or Jack, Bruce, or Zoe) would he pick up the phone.
Walter's voice came through the speaker loud and clear. "Alex, you there?"
Snatching up the receiver, Alex responded, "I'm here."
"Good, I wanted to give you my room number and the number of the hotel. If something urgent comes up, you can leave a message with the desk clerk. I've got my cell phone here too, but the area we're working suffers frequent signal loss."
Alex wrote down the information Walter provided. He tried to think of something to say, but he really hadn't done anything all day other than clean. And he didn't want to mention that for fear that he'd sound like he was fishing for praise or, worse, like a lonely housewife. He settled on, "I hope the case goes well and that you'll be home soon."
Walter, no more willing to admit the intensity with which he missed his lover, said, "I'll try to call you at least once a day to let you know how it's going. You take care, okay?"
"You too, Walter," Alex replied and ended the call.
The constant ache of missing Walter grew more painful as a long and empty Sunday stretched in front of Alex. With Alex volunteering at the homeless shelter on alternating Saturdays, and Walter often needing additional time to catch up on the reports he was unable to write, read, or review during the work week, Sunday had become sacrosanct as the day they set everything else aside and spent time together.
Alex paced around the apartment. Had his life become so entwined with Walter's that he couldn't think of anything to do on his own? Nothing he could think of sounded fun without Walter there to share it with.
Alex, vilifying himself as weak and needy, cursed the emptiness of the apartment and then began to worry how he'd be able to survive when Walter came to his senses and asked him to leave. He wondered which would hurt less, moving out now or waiting for Walter to ask him to go. Do it now and the pain would end sooner. If it ended at all, Alex amended bitterly.
Realizing his thoughts were getting him nowhere, Alex set them aside. He needed something to do that would take him outside his own head. Getting into a fight would certainly accomplish that task, but he didn't want to cause trouble for an innocent, or even not-so-innocent, bystander. Nor did he want to risk arrest. It wasn't that he feared prison; after everything he'd endured working for the Consortium, even worst the prison system could throw at him would be a walk in the park. Alex knew that falling into old self-destructive patterns wouldn't do him any good. The type of life he wanted to lead with Walter required new methods of coping.
He thought about the few friends he'd made since he stopped living in the shadows. Of everyone he knew, Jack had to come the closest to being able to truly understand the precariousness of Alex's new life. Jack had been there himself, having to leave old habits and behaviors behind, to find a new way of living. Alex picked up the phone.
When Alex explained he was at loose ends, Jack invited him over, saying that he was in the mood to use his grandmother's recipes and would need help eating the resulting food. Jack's grandmother was famous within the family for making enough to feed an army whenever she cooked dinner, so Jack wasn't entirely kidding.
"This one of her secret recipes?" Alex asked. "Or one you can teach to me?"
"I don't think she'd mind my teaching it to you," Jack said. "Come on over and we'll see if you can be taught."
Alex, delighted by the challenge, laughed. "I'm on my way."
"I can't believe I ate so much," Alex remarked, looking at the dishes still littering the table.
"I know what you mean," Jack agreed, patting his stomach. "It's a good thing you talked me into running with you, or I'd be as big as a house. But my sainted grandmother, she sure could cook, couldn't she?"
"She sure could." Alex leaned back in his chair and surveyed the dishes on the table and the pans and serving plates that lay on the stove and counter-tops. They'd spent the afternoon baking and cooking "Just the way Jack's Italian grandmother had learned to cook as a child growing up in the old country," or so Jack claimed. They'd made everything from their own bread, a delicious Rosemary Foccacia, to dishes that Alex had previously only had in four star restaurants or as inferior imitations garnered from the frozen foods section of the grocery store. The stuffed manicotti had been more work than Alex expected, but in retrospect was well worth the effort. And the Chicken Cacciatore, that had turned out better far better than any he'd ever eaten anywhere, top restaurants included. Even the artichoke and fennel salad was good, and Alex didn't even *like* fennel.
"You want to take some of this home with you?" Jack asked.
"How about we take it to work with us tomorrow and have it for lunch? We'll make the Wendy's brigade green with envy."
"You're evil," Jack accused. But the big grin on his face said otherwise.
Alex placed his leather jacket on its wooden hangar and hung the assemblage in the hall closet. Walking over to the answering machine, he checked for new messages. There weren't any. He looked at his watch and subtracted the hour time difference -- it was only 9:30 in Dallas. Knowing Walter, he'd been up to his eyeballs in reports all day and was only now getting around to ordering dinner.
As he went about locking up the apartment and getting ready for bed, Alex thought about the dinner he had, and Walter's weakness for Italian food. He would enjoy showing Walter that he wasn't the only one in their relationship capable of creating magnificent multi-course meals. Even barring the competitive aspects, Alex thought, he wanted to be able to treat Walter to the sort of meal Walter so often prepared for him. Trading the hard work that went into Walter's gourmet meals for simple fare Alex normally prepared simply didn't equal a fair exchange of labor. And, Alex reminded himself, his days of exploiting people were over.
But still, he could hardly wait to see the look on Walter's face when he sat him down to feast on the dishes he'd learned to prepare tonight.
Alex had just begun to fall asleep when the phone rang. Sure it was Walter, he picked it up after the second ring. "Hello," Alex yawed into the phone.
"Did I wake you?" Walter asked.
"No," Alex prevaricated. "I was getting ready for bed when the phone rang."
"You have a good day?"
"Yeah, I did," Alex answered, realizing the truth of the statement. Except missing Walter, he'd had a great day. "How about you? How's it going?"
"I'm glad I'm here," Walter said. "Now that I'm down here, I've got a much better feel for the players. It won't be easy, but I think we'll be able to hand the prosecution everything it needs."
"That's great," Alex said, keeping the hurt out of his voice. What did Walter mean, he was glad to be in Dallas? Didn't the man miss him?
"Yeah, it is," Walter enthused, thinking that the sooner they had the evidence, the sooner he could fly home. "Anything there I should know about?"
"Nothing I can think of. No mail today, so nothing interesting there. Everything seems to be in fine working order."
"Okay then, I'll let you get some sleep," Walter said, wondering if he should take the line about "fine working order" personally. Alex wouldn't be out looking for a new lover so soon, would he? He'd only been gone two days. Well there was the episode... Uncomfortable with the memory, Walter stopped the thought abruptly. He barely heard Alex's voice saying, "You get some sleep too, Walter," and completely missed the love and concern in the words.
"Good night, Alex," Walter said and reached to hang up the telephone. He never heard the final word of Alex's response.
"Good night, Love."
Monday morning came as bright and early as Monday mornings are wont to do. Alex had slept fitfully, still not adjusted to sleeping alone and troubled by the conversation he'd had with Walter the night before. He put on his running clothes, gathered his wallet, work clothes, leather jacket, and the keys to Walter's car, and drove to Jack's apartment to pick him up.
A strong breeze blew cold air down from the north and the skies began to threaten rain, but after parking Walter's car in Mosely Security's parking lot, Alex and Jack began their morning run. The cold wind was unpleasant, but determined not to break training for the upcoming race, Jack pressed on. Although he too was not appreciative of the weather, Alex had survived much worse and didn't let it bother him. The men made poor time during the first half of the run -- running into the strong wind slowed them down considerably -- but with the wind at their backs, they made the return trip at record speed and returned from the run exhilarated.
Walter paged through the contents of the file folder the sheriff had given him one more time. He *knew* he was missing something, but whatever clue was buried in the paperwork continued to elude him.
He tried to focus on the investigation but thoughts of Alex began to intrude. He glanced at his watch, and saw that it was getting late. If he were home in DC, he'd be finishing up his work day and looking forward to picking up Alex. They'd go home and have dinner, and afterwards, they might not do anything more than sit on the couch, but whatever they did, doing it together made the experience infinitely more enjoyable.
Marshalling his thoughts, Walter picked up the stack of file folders and began sorting them by originating agency. If there was ever a case in which the investigators needed a scorecard to keep track of the players, this was it.
After work, Alex returned home to the apartment. He checked the answering machine and, finding no new messages, walked into the kitchen. He put a frozen pizza into the oven and set the timer, then found his book and settled down to do some light reading. Other than the title, _Dangerous Men_, he wasn't sure what had attracted him to the book when he'd spotted it on the bookshelf. He wasn't much of a movie buff, and knew hardly anything about old movies. But it was interesting, reading about Hollywood in the pre-Code years and the sort of movies that were made then. It seemed to Alex that underlying themes portrayed in movies during the pre-Code years bore some resemblance to his own life. Alex knew he was no hero, but he could identify with an outsider's understanding of life. And he, like the pre-Code heroes discussed, acknowledged that the world was jungle and did the best he could.
Alex set his book aside and let his thoughts wander.
Falling into melancholia, Walter's call when it came did nothing to improve Alex's mood. The witnesses were still missing, an agent had been shot, and Walter had no idea when he'd be able to return to Washington.
Talking with Alex brought Walter's longing for his lover into sharp relief. He missed Alex so much it hurt. He'd lived a solitary life for so long, he had thought a couple of weeks away wouldn't be a big deal. He had been wrong. It was a damn big deal.
Locking down his emotions, Walter transmuted his longing for Alex into renewed determination to crack the case. He resolved to use the all of the resources available to him to their fullest extent. He would push the investigators until they gave the case everything they had to give, and he would push himself the hardest of all.
Spender visited Alex in his dreams that night, taunting him with hateful words and plumes of cigarette smoke. Alex woke up in a cold sweat, still hearing echoes of the smoking man's derisive laughter when Alex protested that Walter was away on FBI business, not because he wanted to be.
Having no appetite, Alex skipped breakfast. He would have skipped lunch too, but one of his students said she needed to talk and asked if he'd join her for lunch. He wondered if he was being set up, or if she was coming on to him. But, intrigued and in need of a distraction from his own thoughts, Alex agreed to meet with her at the restaurant down the street.
Over lunch, his student, Maggie O'Neill, revealed that she had recently inherited a gun collection that she wanted to dispose of without opening a legal can of worms. Could Alex help?
Alex took a bite of his turkey sandwich and mulled over the situation. Assuming that this wasn't a set up of some sort, and Alex wasn't convinced it wasn't, what did Ms. O'Neill hope to gain? An estimate of the collection's worth? The name of a reputable gun dealer? Did she expect him to offer to buy the collection himself?
Further conversation revealed that she was concerned her father had obtained the guns illegally. Although there were pistols in the collection, the majority of the pieces appeared to be military in nature. If they had been stolen from the government, she wanted them returned anonymously. But how to do that?
Alex promised to give the matter some thought and arranged to meet with her again in a week's time.
Consistent with his determination to use every resource at his disposal, Walter called Fox Mulder to Dallas. Supervising Mulder had always been challenging, but the man's willingness to follow Walter's orders had decreased since he learned that Alex had begun living with him. And each of Mulder's attempts to "save" him from Alex has worsened the the tension between them. Still, Mulder *was* the FBI's best profiler and Walter knew that without his help, the investigation would continue to flounder.
After teaching his afternoon classes, Alex drove home to Viva Tower. Rush hour traffic seemed worse than usual and Alex wondered why that was. He was glad that he and Walter didn't live way out in the suburbs, he couldn't imagine adjusting to the long commute times some of his students reported having.
Upon arriving home, Alex checked the answering machine. There were no messages. He tried calling Walter's cell phone but the network was overloaded, probably from all those drivers stuck in rush hour telling their spouses they'd be home late for dinner, Alex thought sardonically. He'd try calling again later.
Alex looked around the apartment for something to do. It was still spotless from the weekend cleaning and he wasn't in the mood to read or to listen to music. He felt restless, missing Walter and yet feeling penned in by the man's absence. If this were his old life, he'd go out and either cause trouble or get laid. Maybe, he thought as a wolfish grin lit his features, both -- if he were lucky. Picking the phone back up, he tried Walter's number once more. Still no signal. None too gently, he dropped the phone back into its cradle.
Alex thought about going out, but the view from the balcony convinced him that the roads were still a mess. He flipped on the television, aimlessly switching from channel to channel. Nothing held his attention for more than a few seconds and after making the circuit several times, Alex flipped the switch, once more throwing the apartment into silence.
He glanced at the telephone, willing it to ring. It didn't. He thought about trying to call Walter again, but envisioned the call failing and himself hurling the phone from the balcony in a fit of temper.
Considering his agitated state, Alex reached the conclusion that the only thing that permit him to settle down was physical exertion. Running came to mind, but Alex ruled that out as he and Jack would run in the morning. Alex recalled Walter mentioning that Viva Tower maintained a fitness center for the building's residents and that he'd said something about it being on the same floor as the other public facilities, such as the laundry room. As they had their own washer and dryer, and as Walter had no interest in the health club, preferring to box as his own club, Alex had never felt the need to investigate that part of the building. It was time for that to change. Alex changed into shorts and a t-shirt, grabbed his keys, and went exploring.
When Alex returned to the apartment a couple of hours later, he was feeling much calmer. Checking the answering machine, he found a brief message from Walter stating that he was personally overseeing a stake- out and would be incommunicado for the next twelve to twenty-four hours.
Wednesday morning, Alex picked up Jack and they drove to the Georgetown Waterfront. There, they ran the Glover Archbold Trail through a mostly wild stream valley. Afterwards, on the ride to Mosely Security, Jack couldn't stop talking about how much he enjoyed running in the deep green woods. Alex felt much the same way and began to envision future runs. Having his own car would allow them to explore more of the trails surrounding DC and its suburbs. And he was sure Walter would appreciate no longer having to worry about stranding Alex when he was caught in a meeting or otherwise delayed by FBI business.
Walter took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He expected Mulder soon, and he needed to fortify himself for the meeting. Even at the best of times, his agent tried his patience. And Walter was exhausted, physically and emotionally. He'd gotten so used to Alex greeting him with a kiss when he got home. He loved being able share a line from a book he was reading, or laughing at something on TV, and having Alex to cuddle up to on the couch. And their bed ... Walter decided this was not the direction his thoughts should take. He picked up the telephone and called the hospital to request an update on the medical status of the agent who had been shot.
Reviewing the case notes Mulder had prepared, Walter was again impressed with just how good Mulder was at what he did. Without a doubt, Mulder was best profiler the FBI had ever had. If only he would learn to concentrate his energy on his work rather than interfere with Walter's personal life...
That night, Alex stopped at the Jeep dealership on his way home. He was still going over the brochures and other product literature he'd picked up when Walter called.
Alex sounded cheerful when he picked up the phone and greeted his lover with a delighted "Walter!"
"You're in a good mood," Walter observed.
"I am," Alex agreed. "I've been thinking about your suggestion that we buy a second car and I stopped at the dealership after work."
Before leaving for Dallas, Walter would have been elated to learn Alex was considering the idea. But now, it gave him pause. Hadn't Alex claimed to enjoy spending time with him, even when it was just a few minutes on the way to or from work? And now, while he's away and Alex is driving his car, *now* he decides to go car shopping? Was this a sign Alex was pulling away? Would he go from wanting his own car to wanting a place of his own? Walter was so wrapped up in his thoughts that he missed Alex's question when it came.
"I'm sorry, could you repeat that?"
"I asked how the case was going." Actually, he'd asked if Walter had any idea when he was coming home, but he'd be damned before he repeated *that* question. He hated sounding weak and needy, almost as much as he hated feeling that way.
"It's going better," Walter confided. "I had Mulder flown in this morning. His insights and theories are proving to be everything I hoped."
The casually stated words caused alarm bells to ring in Alex's mind. Walter had not only brought in Mulder, but he'd implied that Mulder's insights and theories were trustworthy. Should Alex assume that Mulder was would make his usual disparaging remarks concerning their relationship? And that this time Walter would not only hear but believe them?
Alex didn't know how to respond. He struggled to think of something to say, but his mind had gone completely blank. He was saved from the problem by the sound of loud pounding followed by a deep baritone voice.
"AD Skinner. I have information..."
"Just a minute, Sheriff," Alex heard Walter say, then "I'm sorry, I've got to go."
Alex nodded, realized Walter couldn't see him and choked out, "I'm sorry too. Take care, Walter." And hung up the phone.
Four long and exhausting hours later, Walter returned to his motel room. He had just started to undress when Mulder knocked at the door.
"Sir, I thought of something about the case that we need to discuss. Could I come in?"
That was actually the last thing Walter wanted, but he didn't anticipate getting much sleep anyway. He buttoned his shirt back up and let Mulder in.
Walter listened to Mulder's idea and they discussed it for a while. As Mulder got up to go, he said, "You know, I think this separation has been good for you, Sir."
"What's that, Mulder?"
"Being here, away from Krycek. It seems to have reawakened the character traits that lead you to making AD. Your tenacity, your ability to focus...
Walter felt his blood pressure soar. "You," he spluttered. "Mulder, you don't know *shit* about what makes me tick. And if you know what's good for *you*, you won't mention Alex again. Is that clear? Now *get* *out*!"
"Sir, I only -- "
"Out, Mulder." Walter jerked the door open and Mulder walked reluctantly out. Walter resisted the urge to slam it.
The alarm clock sounded its warning for several minutes before Alex woke up enough to realize that Walter wasn't home. Alex knew that he had to turn the alarm clock off before it gave him a super-sized headache, but it was tempting to lay in bed a little while longer. He was warm and comfortable, which in itself was memorable after nights spent tossing and turning. He'd dreamt that Walter was laying asleep next to him, his warm body spooned against his own after a long night of love-making. He could still feel the warmth and pressure of Walter's body, the illusion furthered by the bedcovers which during the earlier part of the night had become untucked and now lay wadded up behind him.
Freeing himself from the tangle of sheets, Alex hit the off button on the clock and sat on the edge of the bed. He briefly considered going back to bed but knew the two likeliest outcomes were negative. Either he'd fall asleep and be late for work, or, more likely, he'd toss and turn and miss Walter all the more. Yawning, Alex forced himself to his feet and shuffled toward the shower. Looking in the mirror as he shaved, he noticed that he was starting to look as bad as he felt. He hoped the change wasn't as apparent to his students and coworkers as it was to himself.
Walter was consulting with one of his agents when he saw a familiar red head approaching. Dana Scully came up as Walter dismissed the other agent. She held up a folder.
"Here's the results Mulder wanted."
"Scully, what are doing here?"
"Sir?" she asked, confused. "Mulder -- I ... "
"I think I understand. Mulder asked you to come. He no longer feels the need to seek my approval once he's made up his mind that he knows what's best."
"It's all right, Scully. I'm sure your input will help."
Scully looked at him critically. "I was about to go get a little lunch. Would you like to join me?"
Walter was about to refuse, but realized he missing yet another meal wouldn't help him solve the case any faster. "Why not?"
They found a quiet restaurant near their hotel. When they were seated and their waitress had taken their drink order, Scully said, "Sir, I've been meaning to speak to you about Mulder. He's very concerned with this Krycek situation."
"That's a bit of an understatement, Agent Scully. He's obsessed. And it's not a 'situation'."
"I didn't mean it that way. Mulder's spoken to me about it. I told him that I saw no evidence indicating Krycek is exploiting you."
"I appreciate that, Scully."
"As long as you're sure this is what you want. There's no love lost between Krycek and myself, but I won't cause trouble or involve myself in a vendetta. I've tried to counsel Mulder to do the same, but you know how he is."
The waiter arrived with Scully's water and Walter's iced tea, and took their food order.
"Scully, I know only too well how he is. I've always respected Mulder. He's a good agent. He's always been dedicated to his quests, and I was fine with that until he crossed the line. My patience is nearing its end."
"I understand, Sir. Should I try and talk to him again?"
"No, Scully, this is my problem. But thank you."
They moved on to other topics until the food arrived, then abandoned conversation and concentrated on their meal. Scully dug into her salad, but she noticed Walter ate little of his sandwich.
"Sir, aren't you hungry? You look tired and a little pale. Are you coming down with something?"
Walter thought of the many times recently that Alex had asked him that very thing. He smiled weakly. "I *am* tired. I just don't have much appetite. I'll be fine after this case is over and things get back to normal."
"Just take care of yourself."
"Thank you for your concern, Scully."
They both declined dessert and headed back to the investigation's temporary headquarters.
"Get your eye and ear protection on and, keep the barrel pointed down range!" Alex ordered. His students, lined up in the shooting booths, rapidly obeyed. "Fire one round on each sound of the whistle, ready on the firing line - fire!" he continued, and blew his whistle. Alex walked behind his students, making certain that they obeyed the rules of the range, correcting grips and firing positions, and offering advice or encouragement as needed.
When the lesson ended, Alex stood by the door collecting equipment from the students who had borrowed rather than brought their own. He was inspecting one of the borrowed handguns, deciding whether or not it was overdue for a cleaning, when Bruce Mosely tapped him on the shoulder.
"Come have lunch," Bruce said without preamble.
Alex wasn't particularly hungry but he nodded agreeably. "Let me get these into the weapons locker first."
Bruce was waiting by the front door when Alex came out of the storage room. "Come on, man, I'm *hungry*," Bruce said, opening the glass door and moving quickly toward his vehicle.
Alex fell into step beside him. "Where are we going?"
"Austin Grill," Bruce said. "I'm in the mood for TexMex."
Alex laughed, "Reminds me of when a friend came in for a visit after he'd been living in Tucson. We went to our old stomping grounds to have dinner, only to find that all of the places we remembered had been replaced by Thai restaurants. Now I like Thai, but he refused to eat any of that 'foreign' food, said the only thing he wanted was 'good *American* food -- burgers or Mexican.'"
Bruce grinned appreciatively. "Man after my own heart."
"I know you better than that," Alex contradicted. "I don't think you've ever met a food you didn't like. 'Specially Southern cooking."
"I do love grits 'n gravy and everything else my mama and grandmammy used to make, that's for sure. But when I got back from 'nam, it was a long time before I'd touch anything with rice. You know what we called what the natives ate while we were over there?"
"What?" Alex asked, though he had a good guess as to the answer.
"Rice and undefinables. And the smell of that stuff..." Bruce shook his head, as if trying to dislodge the memory.
Alex grinned, "It does have a rather unique odor."
By the time they reached the restaurant, Bruce had almost reduced Alex to a state of helpless laughter with a withering comparison of military and hospital cuisine.
As they waited for a table to open up, Bruce asked Alex if he knew when Walter would return to DC. When told there was no telling, Bruce swore under his breath. "Damn. I was hoping to talk him into going with us on Memorial Day."
"Even if Walter's home by then, I don't think you'll talk him into going." Bruce gave him an inquiring look and in response, Alex said, "Let's just say the last time the subject came up, Walter was adamant that he isn't going."
"You are though, right?"
Alex gave an abbreviated nod. "I'll be there."
"You ever been before?"
"I've walked by, sure. But I've never gone on Memorial Day or for any sort of official event."
"Memorial Day's a trip. Wouldn't surprise me if that's the busiest day of the year at the Wall. Paul Revere & The Raiders are doing their annual 'Ride To The Wall'..."
Interrupting, Alex asked, "Paul Revere and the Raiders, didn't they play at Woodstock?"
"You weren't even born then, were you?"
Alex looked sheepish and admitted he hadn't been.
"I believe you're thinking of Country Joe and Fish."
"Oh, that's right," Alex said, thinking of the movie. "I remember now."
"What about Rolling Thunder?"
"Wasn't that the name of a bombing campaign? Vietnam, March 1965 to October 1968, if I remember history class. What about it?"
"You ever see bikers with POW/MIA emblems on the back of their leathers?"
"Sure, I've seen groups of them. Usually riding on the highway or stopped at rest areas. I've never talked to any of them though."
"That's the other Rolling Thunder -- they publicize the POW/MIA issue and are working to make sure that no one else ever gets left behind. Last year some 300,000 of them came to DC for Memorial Day."
"So what will we be doing?" Alex asked.
Bruce's reply was pre-emptied by the hostess, who guided the men to a table near the back of the restaurant. Once seated, they both looked around, re-acquainting themselves with the layout of the building and forming an impression of the other diners. Not feeling a threat from any quarter, they relaxed and resumed their conversation.
"You know how the Wall's arranged, right?" Bruce asked.
"By date, then alphabetically."
Bruce smiled in approval at the answer. "I figure we'll hang out near the dates when I was in-country. If any the men from my old unit show up, that's where they'll head. Families of the men I served with who died over there too."
"Do I need to bring anything?"
"Just yourself. Zoe and I'll bring a picnic lunch for the four of us, and folding chairs too. Can't think of anything else we'll need."
A few moments later, a young Hispanic man wearing blue jeans and a tee- shirt bearing the restaurant logo approached their table. He introduced himself as Ramon, their server, and handed each man a menu before asking if they would like to order drinks. Both Bruce and Alex stated that water would be fine and began examining the menu. The waiter excused himself, saying he would return in a few minutes for their order.
Alex hadn't been hungry when he'd agreed to accompany Bruce, but the food smelled delicious and he had developed quite an appetite during their wait for an open table. He read through the menu eagerly and had trouble deciding what sounded best. Eventually he settled on the Austin Special, two enchiladas, one cheese and one chicken, each striped with green chile, ancho, and white sulza sauce.
Bruce, meanwhile, zeroed in on his favorite, the Carne Combo. Accurately described as a meat lover's dream, it included a grilled steak taco, a beef barbacoa enchilada with ancho sauce, and barbecue carne asada.
The waiter returned to take their orders and Alex ordered his lunch using perfectly accented Spanish, earning a blinding smile and a flood of Spanish from the wiry young man. Alex responded in kind and the man laughed as a slight blush burnished his dark skin. Without another word he left to turn in their order.
Bruce looked at Alex with some surprise. "Just how many languages *do* you speak?"
"Fluently?" Bruce nodded and Alex continued, "Four: English, Russian, French, and Cantonese. I can also speak enough Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, Italian, German, and Dutch to get myself in -- or out -- of trouble."
"How'd you learn?"
Alex shrugged. "I grew up speaking Russian at home and English in school. My high school had a language requirement but Russian wasn't one of the choices, so I took French."
"What about Cantonese and Mandarin?"
"Oh, I spent some time in Hong Kong. Cantonese is the native tongue there, but Mandarin Chinese is also spoken. That's where I learned."
"Spent some time in the deserts in the Southwest, not to mention New York. It's surprising just how many languages are spoken there."
Bruce nodded, satisfied. "That brings up one of the reasons I asked you to have lunch with me today. I'm beginning to think you're under- utilized. Are you still enjoying teaching?"
"Yes, I am," Alex said. "But I wouldn't be adverse to hearing what you're thinking."
Bruce laughed. "I think Walter's wearing off on you. That was a very politic answer."
Alex gave him an obvious fake scowl in response, but he wondered how much truth there was to the words. He *had* changed during the time he and Walter had been living together.
Looking at the expression on Alex's face made Bruce laugh even harder. When he regained control over his laughter, he reached for his water glass and took a sip. "As I was saying," he said, and looked up just in time for Ramon to slide a platter in front of him.
Ramon gave Alex a flirtatious grin, then placed his platter in front of him with a flourish.
"Gracias," Alex said in response, and he meant it sincerely. The food looked and smelled wonderful. And Ramon's attention wasn't unwelcome; he was a very handsome man, sinewy and lean.
"De nada," Ramon murmured, and left to tend to another of his tables.
Bruce observed Alex flirting with the waiter, but said nothing. He himself had always appreciated lovely ladies and now that Zoe was in his life that hadn't changed. He still loved to look. The difference was, he was no longer interested in touching. Bruce thought there was a good chance Alex felt the same way about Walter. And if Alex's listlessness and general lack of appetite were any indication, he was powerfully missing the man.
Alex noticed Bruce looking at him. "What?" he asked.
"Just thinking about business," Bruce replied. He paused just long enough to make Alex wonder if that were the whole truth. "We've had some inquiries from museums interested in renting their facilities for business meetings, luncheons hosted by special interest groups, fund- raising dinners, that sort of thing. Naturally, they don't want to put their collections into jeopardy. And in some cases, the safety of the guests is also an issue, since the speakers may be controversial or have enemies. I've been approached to prepare a white paper outlining the risks and possible ways to overcome them. Some of the solutions entail hardware -- anti-theft devices, alarms, motion sensors, cameras -- but others will rely on more old-fashioned methods, namely observation and intervention. I was wondering if that would be of interest to you. To work more closely with me, finding weaknesses in existing security systems and developing new methodologies."
Alex looked intrigued. "Would I be doing that full time, or in addition to teaching?"
"In addition, at least at first." Bruce paused to take a bite out of his taco. When he finished swallowing he continued, "I've heard good things about your teaching. I'm also aware that several of the newer students signed up for our courses based on the knowledge that you would be the one teaching them."
The unadorned praise surprised Alex at the same time it warmed his soul. In general, Alex considered other people's emotions irrelevant. He had never given his student's feelings concerning himself or his teaching methods any consideration; when he had a job to do, his attention was on doing the job as accurately and efficiently as possible. In his own training, both punishment and negative conditioning had been utilized, but Alex found that positive reinforcement worked wonders with his students and he used it almost exclusively.
Not knowing how to respond, Alex speared a portion of enchilada with his fork and began to eat.
"So, you interested?" Bruce asked.
Alex nodded and when he'd swallowed his mouthful, said, "Yes. Very."
Satisfied, Bruce turned his attention to his lunch.
They ate quietly, each absorbed in the pleasure afforded by good food, until their stomachs began to protest that they had eaten more than enough. Alex gave up first, pushing the red rice that accompanied his enchiladas around the plate with his fork. He thought about what Bruce had said and the idea that he had somehow turned into a popular teacher. The thought was a little disquieting; he had hoped to maintain a low profile now that he was free of the consortium. Thinking about his students reminded him of Maggie O'Neill's request.
"I had an interesting conversation with one of my students," he began.
Bruce looked up from his plate and signaled him to continue.
"Maggie O'Neill. She asked me to lunch, told me that she'd inherited a gun collection and that she wants my advice about what to do with it."
"How to store it? Or finding a buyer?"
"Maybe," Alex said. He looked troubled and was obviously searching for the words that would explain the problem, so Bruce refrained from asking more questions. "It's just that I've got a weird feeling about it. I can't decide if it's a set-up, a trap of some sort, or if she's legit and she really did inherit her father's collection. She hinted that all of the pieces may not be legal and if that's the case, she wants them returned to their rightful owner."
"That'd be difficult if they were privately owned."
Alex nodded sagely. She's adamant that her name not be linked to the discovery. I assume that's to avoid legal entanglements, but it may go deeper than that. Reading between the lines, I think she's concerned that they'll fall into the wrong hands. But that assumes she's on the up-and-up *and* that the pieces are of questionable origin."
"You going to look at the collection?"
Alex nodded. "If everything checks out, yes. I started to run a background check; so far nothing seems out of whack. I'm also going to check out the storage place, make sure it isn't under surveillance."
"If you're concerned about electronics or counter-measures, talk to TJ. He's always looking for an excuse to field test his new toys."
"Thanks," Alex said. "I will."
As AD Skinner had not countermanded Mulder's instructions, once he'd been informed of them, Dana Scully found herself working with the Dallas Field Office's Evidence Response Team. Readily accepted by her colleagues as fellow scientist, she was soon processing evidence side by side with them in their well-equipped laboratory. Concentrating on the evidence underneath the lens of her microscope, Scully did not at first hear the question directed toward her.
Dana looked up to see who was calling her name. She saw a beautiful black woman looking at her inquisitively. "I'm sorry, did you say something?"
The woman smiled shyly, saying, "I asked if you'd worked with AD Skinner before."
"Yes, ever since I was assigned to work with Agent Mulder."
"Is the AD always this demanding? I mean," she said, her skin darkening as she blushed, "I've heard agents call him 'Old Stoneface' before, but the man is simply terrifying. He had Agent Blondell over there," she indicated a slight man working by the centrifuge, "so nervous he started to hyperventilate."
"He expects his agents to give their all to the job."
Looking at Scully with a thoughtful expression on her face, the other agent said, "There's doing the job, and then there's doing nothing *but* the job."
Scully thought of all times she'd witnessed Skinner burning the midnight oil. And realized there had been far fewer of them since Krycek had re- entered his life. With a fleeting smile she said, "Then let's find the evidence that will send him back to DC."
After teaching his last class of the day, Alex stopped by Jack's desk. Jack, holding the phone against his ear with his shoulder, was jotting notes onto a telephone message pad. Alex heard a series of "Mhmmms," followed by "Got it," and "I'll let him know."
Hanging up the phone, Jack asked, "Anything I can do for you, Alex?"
"Do you know if TJ checked out?"
"He's still here. Have you tried looking in the gym? Duke's been razzing him again."
Amused, Alex said, "Again? "*Still* is more like it."
Jack laughed, the phone rang, and Alex went off in search of TJ.
As predicted, Alex found Duke and TJ in the gym.
"Hang it up, Geek Boy. There's no way you can do ten reps."
"Can... too," TJ grunted, "you... muscle... bound... freak."
Alex stood back, enjoying the show. The two continued to exchange insults until TJ, with Duke spotting, finished the final repetition and lifted the bar back to the top of the weight bench.
Alex clapped, "Well done."
Duke turned, giving Alex a dead-eyed stare. "You want something?"
Alex nodded at Duke, but spoke to TJ. "Bruce said I should talk to you if I had questions about electronic surveillance."
Duke snorted. "Man, you ask him one tiny question about that and he'll talk your ear off."
TJ laughed. "Back off, Duke. What do you want to know?"
"One of my students asked for my advice regarding some weaponry she inherited. She wants my help determining whether the goods were stolen. There's a possibility that if they were, the collection is under surveillance. If it is, I want to steer clear. That's what I want to know, is there a way to determine whether or not the site is being electronically monitored? I've already done a drive-by and didn't see any sign of a surveillance unit."
"Would you know what to look for?" Duke asked.
"Meet me in my lab in a half hour," TJ said, "and I'll show you what I've got and what it can do."
"You've got a deal," Alex replied.
Shaking his head, Duke predicted, "You'll be sorry." He turned to face TJ. "You better skip the last exercise and get into the shower."
"You saying it'll take me more than 30 minutes to do three sets of fore arm curls?" TJ asked, incredulous.
"Three sets and shower," Duke amended.
"I can do it."
"I'll show *you*," TJ insisted. And began adjusting the weight on the bar.
TJ's hair was still wet when he joined Alex in the electronics lab exactly thirty minutes later.
"You build all this yourself?" Alex asked in lieu of a greeting.
"Some, not all," TJ replied, and launched into a detailed description of the gear Alex had been examining and it's capabilities. True to Duke's warning, once started TJ was difficult to interrupt. But contrary to Duke's expectation, Alex had no trouble following along and was interested in both the equipment and TJ's explanations regarding the modifications he had made to what was once stock equipment.
Two hours later, Duke stepped through the lab door. "You guys still at it?"
"Yeah," TJ replied. "We're thinking of going out to get some dinner. You want to come along?"
"And listen to you jabber about electronics all night? No thanks!"
TJ grinned his unrepentant grin. "Suit yourself!"
Duke nodded, flashing a grin to TJ as he did. "See you tomorrow." His eyes once again serious, he nodded at Alex and was gone.
Walter Skinner dropped the sheaf of papers onto the desktop and removed his glasses. The collection of field notes were nearly illegible and the intense concentration required to read them had given him eye strain -- which he'd ignored long enough for it to develop into a ferocious headache. When pinching the bridge of his nose didn't alleviate the pain, Walter closed his eyes and rubbed his eyelids, hard. Replacing his glasses, he once again tried to focus on the faint scrawl. The words blurred together.
Abandoning the papers, Walter stretched his neck, rolling his head in a slow clockwise circle. The crunch and grind of his vertebrae made an unpleasant reminder that he wasn't getting any younger and he wondered if Alex would still want him when he was just another old man.
TJ stood in the parking lot at Mosely Security, looking from Walter's sedan to Alex and then back again. "*This* is your ride?"
"No, it's Walter's. I'm still car shopping."
"Ah, that explains it," TJ said. He looked at the silver Crown Vic with evident distaste. "No way I'm riding with you," he said. "You want to follow or hitch a ride with me?"
Alex looked at his watch. It was already getting late and he'd probably want to go straight home after dinner. "I'll follow."
Twenty minutes later, Alex pulled into a parking space on the far side of the lot. TJ, with his typical luck, had nabbed a spot opposite the front door and now stood in the entryway, waiting for Alex to catch up.
The interior of the restaurant was thick with cigarette smoke and voices speaking a variety of languages, none of which were English. Alex surveyed the room, taking note of the salient features and looking for familiar faces among the staff and dinner guests. Not spotting anyone he knew, Alex turned his attention back to TJ. "Tell me again how you found this place."
"When I was at Rensselaer, we used to stay up all night hacking and when we'd get hungry we'd order out. When we got sick of pizza, we'd get Chinese. Yun used to complain about the food, saying it wasn't anything like what he ate at home in China. Told me that if I ever found myself in DC, I should eat at his brother-in-law's place. Everything they serve is authentic to the Guangdong Province. They don't alter the recipes for American tastes and, as you can see," TJ indicated the room, "not many Caucasians eat here."
As he completed another series of neck rolls, Walter wished Alex were standing behind him, sure the skilled touch of his lover would provide more relief than a team of physiotherapists.
Missing Alex more than ever, Walter pulled out his cell phone and checked it for new messages. The display showed the symbol for one new message, but when he replayed it, the message was from Mulder. Walter hit the speed dial button for his home telephone number.
The phone rang and rang, and finally, the machine picked up. Thinking Alex was screening calls, or not near the phone, he said, "Alex, it's me. Pick up if you're there." He waited, but Alex didn't answer.
Concluding that Alex must be in the bathroom and would need a few minutes to reach the phone, Walter kept talking, saying the first things that came into his head. "I'm in my office here at the Dallas Field Office. You should see the space they've given me, you'd think they don't want me to return to DC. And this building, it's really something. And the hotel they've set me up in, it's a lot nicer than the usual places they stash agents. Even the weather here has been great -- not too hot during the day and wonderfully cool at night."
Running out of things to say, Walter wrapped up his message. "Looks like you haven't come home yet. I'll call back in an hour or two."
After filling his cup with Wulong tea, Alex held the teapot aloft. TJ, who had been talking nonstop for the past quarter hour, caught his meaning and nodded. Meanwhile, his verbal description of the devices he had designed continued without so much as a pause for breath.
Having filled TJ's cup, Alex picked up his own and took a sip of the hot liquid. The tea was mellow, without the bitter and astringent taste that is typical of the tea served in American restaurants. Alex smiled in appreciation and took another mouthful. TJ kept talking.
Alex's main contributions to the conversation were the occasional "Mhmmm," "Uh huh," and the much rarer "I see." To an observer, Alex would appear to to be only half-listening to his dinner companion, however the impression was completely false. Alex was paying rapt attention, and learnt more about Mosely Security's history and its employees over the course of dinner than he had during the entire time he had been employed there. And although TJ loved to talk about past investigations and the specialized equipment he had created, his descriptions were every bit as entertaining as they were informative.
When it occurred to him to take a look at his wrist watch, Alex was shocked to discover it was well past midnight. Concerned that he had missed his nightly call with Walter, he excused himself from the table and made his way to the pay phone.
The telephone was off a long hallway in the rear of the building, situated near a small private dining room which was populated by a drunken crowd who laughed and applauded boisterously as one of their member sang a horrible rendition of Livin' La Vida Loca. Punching in the numbers for his calling card and Walter's cell phone, Alex covered his free ear with his false hand and hoped that he'd be able to hear Walter above the noise.
He felt a confused mixture of disappointment and relief when a recorded voice came on, stating that the cell phone he was calling was in use and inviting him to leave a message.
"Walter, I'm out with one of the guys from work. I should be home within the hour if you want to call me there."
He returned to the table and a smiling TJ.
"You ready for desert? The mango ice cream is incredible and it goes great with the almond cookies the waitress will bring out with the bill."
"I said I'll look at it *in the morning,* Agent!" Walter hit the end button and snapped his cell phone shut. Damn Mulder and damn the entire misbegotten investigation. When he was in Washington, agents withheld critical information. Now that he was in the field, they appeared determined to bury the investigation under reams of paper filled with incidental and irrelevant findings.
Walter felt the muscles in his neck and jaw seizing. The stern expression he usually wore became darker, tinged with anger and resentment. He needed to lighten up, to relax, to sleep. But all of these things were impossible in his current state. Having long ago discovered that a few stiff drinks would take the edge off and allow him to get a few hours of sleep, Walter took the stairs down toward the hotel bar.
Locking the apartment door behind him, Alex stopped in front of the hall closet and stripped off his leather jacket. Noticing how strongly it reeked of cigarette smoke, he decided against hanging it in the closet with the other garments. Looking around for a good place to let it air out, he hit upon the balcony, draping it over the back of a chair. Although he wasn't outside for very long, a brisk wind blew and Alex was chilled when he came in.
Aware that he smelled as strongly of cigarettes as did his jacket, and knowing how much he hated smelling smoke on the pillows and sheets, Alex climbed the stairs to the master bath, peeling off his clothes as he went. He pushed them into the laundry hamper and now feeling downright cold, hurried into the shower. The hot water felt great and he took his time, enjoying the flow of water over his skin as he washed his hair, and then lathered and rinsed his body.
It was nearly 2:00 a.m. as Alex toweled himself dry. His hair was damp and he knew it would be rat's nest in the morning, but he was too tired to care. He crawled under the covers, pushed Walter's pillow down until he felt it against his back and then, contented by the illusion that Walter was home in bed, fell asleep.
Walter sat at the hotel bar. The inhospitable aura emanating from him guaranteed that the seats to either side remained empty and that the only person who dared approach was the garrulous bartender who, recognizing danger, wisely saved his words for the other patrons.
Slowly sipping his third scotch, Walter felt his muscles beginning to relax. His anger likewise began to dissipate and his mood lightened. Heartened by the idea that he would sleep well and awaken refreshed, ready once again to do battle, he looked around the room curiously. He noticed a group of young men gathering around a pool table and watched as two of their number competed against one another, each determined to control the action on the table and win the game.
Absorbed in the by-play, Walter did not immediately notice the three men entering the bar, and only when they slid onto the empty seats directly in front of the bartender's station did they come to his attention. All three were big, bearded men with graying hair. Two of the three wore long-sleeved denim shirts, jeans, and cowboy boots. The third wore a black t-shirt emblazoned with a map of Vietnam and the slogan "I'm going to go to Heaven because I've already served my time in Hell," black jeans, and combat boots. One of the men wearing the denim shirts, the one with his hair pulled into a pony-tail, slapped the counter with his open hand. "Yo, barkeep!"
The bartender abandoned the businessman whom he had been discussing baseball and hurried over. "What can I ge--," he said, stopping mid- word. His mouth fell open and his eyes boggled with astonishment. "Teddy, you old dog!" he cried. "I don't believe it, what are you doing here?"
The man called Teddy merely grinned.
"Nothing to say to us, Greenbean?" asked the man in the t-shirt.
The bartender looked from one man to the next, then smiled widely, "Stoner!" he said, smiling widely at the man in the t-shirt. He looked carefully at so-far unidentified man. "Professor?" he ventured.
Professor nodded. "Yep, it's me all right. How ya doin', Greenbean?"
"I'm doing great, how'd you guys find me?"
"Darlene tol' us where you work," Teddy drawled.
Skinner took another sip of his scotch and redirected his attention to the contest of wills taking place by the billiards table. He watched one of the players line up shot that knocked his ball into the pocket without taking the eight ball with it.
Skinner's attention was abruptly yanked back when the words "Field Hospital" and "Da Nang" broke through his consciousness.
Professor continued, "I didn't think he'd make it, not after having his guts bounce out, but I saw him two years ago at the wall. He was doing good, working for the Friend of the Court down in Atlanta."
"I wrote an' asked him if he's goin' to the Wall this year. Said he would, if he could get the time off. How about you, you goin', Greenbean?"
The bartender shook his head. "No, Darlene's niece is getting married over Memorial Day weekend and she'd never forgive me if I didn't go with her."
"Women," Professor said, dismissively.
"Worse than bosses," agreed Stoner.
The bartender changed the topic, asking, "Any of you heard from Genet?"
"Genet?" Stoner laughed. "I haven't thought of him in years. Remember when that reporter came to the fire base to talk about racism and Genet said," he dropped his voice in imitation, "'Man, we all be niggers out here.'"
Teddy chuckled. "Man was right, we were."
Skinner lurched to his feet, wanting to escape from both the bar and his own memories of Vietnam. He pulled a twenty from his wallet, quickly downed the remainder of his scotch and placed the now empty glass on top of the bill. Leaving the hotel bar, Walter strode to the stairwell, jerked open the heavy fire door, and took the stairs two at a time.
The effort of climbing the several flights of stairs did nothing to prevent Walter's thoughts from circling around the memories of Vietnam he kept suppressed. By the time he reached his room, Walter's emotions were tangled as as the black raspberry vines that grew wild on his grandfather's farm. He wanted to talk to Alex, yet at the same time he felt resentful, feeling that he was the one putting forth all the effort in their relationship. After all, Alex hadn't ever tried to call him, had he? And where was he? Out having fun while he was stuck in Dallas working this god-forsaken case? Walter felt trapped, as pinned down as he had ever been while under enemy fire. He wanted to go home; yet at the same time he needed to mete out justice, to make certain that those who died investigating Stuyvesant's drug empire had not died in vain. Walter cursed the politics behind the investigation, the competing law enforcement agencies and, more specifically, the political glory-hounds who willingly trampled evidence as they jockeyed for press coverage and the opportunity to present their own organization in a good light.
Tired and slightly drunk, Walter took off his glasses and lay down on top of the bed. First he would sort out his thoughts, then he would call Alex.
Alex had been asleep for a little under three and a half hours when the alarm clock sounded. Feeling like he had a bad case of jet lag, he hit the off switch, then reset the alarm to give himself another two and a half hours of much needed sleep.
When the alarm went off the second time, Alex turned off the alarm and forced himself out of bed. He used the toilet, washed his hands and face, and then selected the clothes he would wear at work later in the day. Pulling on his running clothes, he ran down the stairs to the main floor and stepped out on to the balcony to retrieve his leather jacket. When he came back inside, it occurred to him that he had been in such a hurry to get into the shower that he had never checked the answering machine. Playing back the message he found there now, Alex heard Walter enthuse about Dallas and wondered whether it was a sign that Walter wanted to make a fresh start, leaving himself, Washington, and all the things they represented behind.
The pounding in Walter's head thrummed in time to the pounding on his hotel door. "Just a minute," he called out in a loud voice, and immediately wished he hadn't. His head felt like it was about to cleave into two.
A moment later, when he yanked open the door, he was greeted by Mulder's impatient "Sir! There's been--," and nothing else as Mulder gaped at him with open-mouthed astonishment.
The disheveled man standing in front of Mulder bore only a passing resemblance to the impeccably dressed Assistant Director he had expected to see. Skinner wore yesterday's clothes which looked as though he had been sleeping in them, he was unshaven, smelled faintly of alcohol, and looked a little green.
"Are you all right, sir?" Mulder asked.
"No, Mulder," Skinner said tiredly, "I'm not."
"Is there anything I can do?"
"Yes, tell me why you're knocking at my door at this ungodly hour."
Feeling unjustly accused, Mulder blurted, "It's a quarter past ten!"
Nonplused, Skinner blinked owlishly, confirmed Mulder's statement with a glance to his wrist watch, and said, "You'd better come in."
Alex was in the employee's break room making himself a cup of tea when Jack came in and dropped into one of the chairs. He watched as Jack stretched out his legs and and massaged the long thigh muscles, pressing into them with the palms of his hands.
"Man," Jack said, "my legs are killing me."
Alex nodded. His own legs ached from their morning run but the pain was slight in comparison to the tightness in his chest. He couldn't stop thinking about the message Walter had left on their answering machine. Even while running uphill along Burdette Road, the burning sensation in his quadriceps was nothing compared to the grief he felt knowing that he was unworthy of a relationship with Walter Skinner and that Skinner himself was beginning to realize the truth of the situation.
Expressing faith in Mulder's intuition, Skinner called the Field Office to request copies of every document relevant to the Stuyvesant case and the half dozen others Mulder specified. All of which he wanted delivered to his desk within four hours.
"You'll see," Mulder said when Skinner hung up the phone. "I'm sure I'm right."
"It's a theory worth a closer look," Skinner agreed. "Now if you'll excuse me, I'd like to get cleaned up."
Mulder nodded and prepared to leave the room.
"Mulder," Skinner said, calling him back.
"If you're right, this will be hard to prove."
"I know," Mulder said, turning the door knob, "but we'll find a way." He slipped out the still opening door and then silently closed it behind him.
Watching an elderly woman practice an Aikido hold on Alex, Bruce Mosely contemplated the contradictions inherent in the man. He knew the sort of work Alex had done while employed by the Consortium and yet here he was, gently encouraging the woman, allowing her to practice what Bruce knew to be a very painful hold on his own body.
When Alex was satisfied that the woman had demonstrated mastery over the new skill, he thanked her for her patience and promised more individualized attention during her next class.
Bruce watched in amusement as the grandmotherly woman spoke to Alex, telling him he was a good boy, not at all like the hoodlums who loitered on the street corner near her apartment, before bidding him a good afternoon and leaving the practice room.
When the woman was safely out of earshot, Bruce came into the room, grinning. "Got her snowed, I see."
"Come on, Alex, lighten up. That was a joke."
"Sorry Bruce, guess I'm just not in the mood right now."
Bruce took a closer look at Alex and didn't like what he saw. His employee was losing weight and looked like he hadn't had a good meal or a full night's sleep in weeks. "Anything I can help you with?," Bruce asked.
Alex shook his head. "I expect things to change when Walter comes back," replied. A little voice in the back of Alex's head amended the statement, whispering, "*If* Walter comes back, you mean."
Bruce said, "It's Friday night and I thought you might want some company. Zoe and I are going to dinner and then out to see a movie. Would you like to come with us?"
Alex forced himself to smile. "Thanks Bruce, but no. I've been thinking about what Walter said about getting a second car and planned to go car shopping after work. In fact, if you don't mind, I'd like to cut out of here an hour early and go then."
"As long as you aren't cutting your own classes," Bruce replied, chuckling.
Walter Skinner, on the telephone with the sheriff, glanced up as an unexpected motion caught his eye. He watched as one of the field agents traded her signature on an electronic clipboard for an overnight package. When the agent stepped back toward her desk, Skinner managed a quick glimpse of the delivery man, and for a a fleeting moment thought he recognized him as fellow patient from the hospital in Saigon.
The sheriff, as if sensing the lapse in Walter's attention, asked "You getting all this?"
"Yes," Walter said, and read back the list of times and locations. When he looked up, the courier was gone.
It was late in the afternoon by the time Alex pulled into one of the parking spaces at the Dodge dealership. A bright red Viper was visible through the building's large front windows, as were a minivan and pickup truck. Since his arrival had gone unnoticed by the sales staff, Alex took a moment to admire the sleek lines of the powerful sports car before stepping away from the window and walking to the area of the sales lot where jeeps were located. He didn't spare more than a glance toward the models with hard tops, focusing his attention on the selection of Wranglers parked there.
Alex was reading the window sticker when, in the reflection on the windshield, he noticed a man approaching. Recognizing the man for what he was, Alex waited until the blond was closer before turning around to face him.
"Can I help you?" the salesman asked, extending his hand. "I'm Steve Levine, the sales floor manager."
"Alex Krycek," Alex said, shaking the man's hand. "I'd like to take one of these for a road test."
"We can do that. Which one would you like to try?"
Alex indicated a forest green Jeep Renegade.
"It's a great machine," the man said, smiling ingratiatingly. "We just need to make a photocopy of your driver's license. Why don't you come inside and get the copy made while I locate the keys?"
Alex reached into his back pocket for his wallet. "Lead the way."
Having taken care of the paperwork, Steve reappeared with the ignition key. "Do you mind if I tag along?"
"I don't mind," Alex replied.
Smiling with approval, the salesman handed the key to Alex. "Let's go for a ride." He led the way back to the jeep Alex indicated, opened the passenger side door and climbed in.
Having fastened his seat belt, the salesman watched Alex study the dashboard, familiarizing himself with the controls. "Would you like me to describe the features?"
"Not at the moment," Alex replied. Turning the key in the ignition, he added, "I'll have questions about four-wheel drive later; right now I just want to see how it handles in the city."
He surprised the salesman by shifting into reverse and backing up to the nearest exit at a high rate of speed. When traffic cleared, Alex shifted into first and pulled into the street. Smoothly shifting gears, he increased speed. The vehicle was peppy and Alex wasn't at all timid about testing the machine's capabilities and handling characteristics.
Satisfied that the jeep was comfortable enough for everyday driving, Alex pulled into the parking lot of a strip mall. Picking the space furthest from the stores and other vehicles, he brought the jeep to a complete stop. "Can I switch to 4-wheel drive while I'm in motion?"
"You can switch to high range 4-wheel drive at speeds up to 55 miles per hour. You need to be stopped to switch into low range, but that's for when you're stuck in mud up to your axles."
Alex nodded. "Show me what to do."
Following Steve's instructions, Alex exited the parking lot and experimented with shifting in and out of high range 4-wheel drive. Impressed with the vehicle's performance, Alex made his way back to the dealership. "I want one of these," he said. "So what's the next step?"
"You tell me what features want included and I fill out the paperwork."
"That sounds easy enough," Alex commented. But when they entered the dealership, a woman holding a stack of papers motioned to Steve. He nodded, saying to Alex, "It looks like I'm needed in the boss' office. If you'll wait for me at my desk, I promise to be as quick as I can."
Alex had only a few minutes to cool his heels before Steve returned, wearing a puzzled expression on his face.
"Something wrong?" Alex inquired.
Steve shook his head. "Not exactly. Shelly tried running you credit while we were on the test drive, but she couldn't find you in any of the databases. You aren't in a witness protection program, are you?" Steve joked.
Alex shook his head, wishing his life were that simple. "No, that isn't it." After a moment, he added, "I've never bought anything on credit before."
"Nothing?" Steve asked incredulously. "You mean to tell me that you don't have a single credit card?"
Before this new life with Walter, all of his credit cards had been either provided to him by the Consortium, issued in the name of a non- existent person, or stolen. He'd destroyed the cards when he left his old life behind, not that they'd be of any help now. "I'm used to living on a cash basis," Alex replied, hiding his discomfort with the question behind a smile. "Will that be a problem?"
"Probably not," Steve answered after a moment's reflection. "But it does mean more paperwork." Steve rummaged in his desk drawer, and, finding what he was looking for, triumphantly presented Alex with a loan application.
Skimming the form, Alex realized that even the questions regarding his residence would be problematic. Although he had visited the Department of Motor Vehicles to update his driver's license, providing Walter's address as his own, he had never made rent or mortgage payments. The job history section presented another dilemma. Alex couldn't truthfully say that he'd been employed by Mosely Security for the length of time that would preclude questions about previous employers, yet what good would it to do truthfully state he worked for an organization that did not exist in any government or commercial database? Or that before moving in with Walter he had willingly traded the use of his body for food and a place to stay?
Alex folded up the application and slid it into the inside pocket of his leather jacket. "I'll have to bring this back."
Steve looked somewhat skeptical, but thinking of his commission, bit back the sarcastic remarks he could have made and nodded agreeably. "Sure, that'll be fine." Sliding a business card from the holder on his desk, he handed it to Alex. "Give me a call when you're ready."
Walter Skinner frowned at the stacks of reports covering the surface of his borrowed desk. He'd been reviewing the contents for hours, taking notes and outlining possible avenues of investigation. But now he leaned back, still frowning, and capped his fountain pen. If he were home in Washington, he'd call it a day and go home and go home to Alex. "Alex," he thought with a silent sigh. He missed his lover and thought about calling, but knew it wasn't wise to do so from within the field office. He could, of course, use his cell phone, but considering how easily such calls can be picked up by scanners, he decided against doing so. With an audible sigh, he uncapped the pen and tried to focus on the task before him.
Alex sat at Walter's kitchen table, the credit application spread out before him. The sections for which he could provide honest answers were filled in with his distinctive block print, but the remaining sections taunted Alex, sneering that no matter how hard he tried, he would never live up to Walter's ideal, someone who didn't need to conceal his past. Resisting the urge to wad the paper into a ball and hurl it into the trash, Alex stood up and walked to the balcony. Standing on the balcony, he looked down, contemplating the city streets far below. He rarely thought of the night Walter had chained him to the railing, but he thought of it now, wondering if Walter had been right, if he was incapable of living a life that didn't involve breaking the law.
Deep in contemplation, Alex did not immediately hear the ringing telephone. When it permeated his consciousness, he stepped inside, where he heard Walter leaving him a message on the answering machine. He hurried, intending to pick up the phone before Walter could hang up, but when he listened to the words Walter was saying, his pace slowed.
"...thought you'd want to know that, once again, Mulder's wild theories are bearing fruit. We've found enough evidence to convince me that we're on the right track, but putting it all together will take time. I don't know how long I'll be out here; until then," Walter tried to joke, "you'll have sole custody of the apartment and my car. Enjoy them while you can."
Alex, who had stopped moving when he heard Walter utter the second "we," stared at the phone in disbelief. Did Walter honestly believe he was enjoying their separation? And what was that line about custody was supposed to indicate - that Mulder had convinced Walter to toss Alex out of the apartment but Skinner was too polite to break up with him over the phone? Shocked into motion, and fully intending to demand answers, Alex strode to the telephone. But when he held the receiver to his ear, all he could hear was dial tone. He punched in the code for automated callback, but whatever number Walter had called from didn't support the feature. Alex stubbornly resisted the urge to smash the telephone into little pieces.
Saturday found Walter Skinner surrounded by agents clamoring for his attention. The day rushed by with a flurry of activity, and by the time he found his bed, early Sunday morning, Skinner was certain that they were on the right track. The next day he would meet the handful of agents he was certain could be trusted with the big picture. He would assign each a particular thread and together they would begin to unravel the web of lies that had confounded earlier inquiries.
Alex's experience was far different. Time seemed to know no bounds, stretching forever into the distance. Other than a trip to the grocery store, there was nothing he need do. No where to go, no one to see, nothing to do.
When the evening finally rolled around, Alex was beyond bored and feeling extremely restless. He thought about calling Jack, but decided that he wasn't the sort of company he wanted. The last time Alex had been inside a gay bar -- or in the company of other gay men -- was before he'd moved in with Walter. He missed the easy camaraderie and, since he wasn't exactly living with Walter now, he might was well see what was happening down in the Circle.
An hour and a half later, Alex found himself paying the cover charge at the club where he used to cruise back when he was tricking. The drag queen who let him in gave him an appreciative once over, and Alex smiled, one of his real, dazzling, heart-breaker smiles.
She fanned herself dramatically. "Whoo baby," she said in a southern drawl, "you are *so* fine!"
Alex laughed, already enjoying himself. He hadn't realized how much he had missed gay life. Maybe he'd be able to talk Walter into going out with him once in a while, even if they had to travel to another city for anonymity's sake.
The crowd hadn't changed much in the months he'd been absent -- mostly gay white men ranging in age from mid-twenty to forty, although he spotted a few people of color, as well as a handful of straight women. The only lesbian couple in residence was on the dance floor, so wrapped up in each other that he doubted they were aware of anyone else.
When Alex approached the bar, he was hailed by one of the bartenders as if he were a long-lost friend. Alex grinned, recognizing the man. "Tony, how's it going?"
"Just fine," Tony said. "Haven't seen you here for a while. You get hooked up with someone? You're lookin' good."
"Yeah, I did. He's out of town and you know us mice."
Tony nodded. "Shoulda took you with him. Hey, you want your regular?"
"Yeah," Alex replied, wishing Walter had asked him to go. Not that he would have gone. He had courses to teach, and having him tag along would have been awkward for Walter. Not even straight agents took their spouses with them when the were in the field.
Tony handed Alex a tumbler filled with a clear bubbling liquid and a slice of lime. "Here you go man."
Alex laid a couple of singles down on the counter. "Still having drag contests?"
"Sure do. 11:30 tonight."
"Thanks, Tony," Alex said, and drifted into the shadows of the room.
Long ago, Alex had discovered the perfect spot from which to people watch. It wasn't so close to any of the loud speakers that he risked damaging his hearing, nor so far away from the dance floor that he couldn't see anything. He grabbed a table and sat down, watching the activity taking place around him. Guys cruising each other, drag queens vying for the most attention, and the men on the dance floor moving their well-toned bodies to the hard beat the DJ laid down.
"Green eyes!" a voice called over the music. "I haven't seen you here in ages!"
"Hey, Will," Alex called back, recognizing the voice. "How's it going?"
Will, a tall thin man with short black hair and a goatee, materialized from the crowd and pulled out a chair. Sitting down, he winked. "You know me, where there's a will, there's a way."
"Things are good, man. And you're looking..." Will hesitated. "I was going to say good, but you look better than that. Looks to me like you've discovered the joy of regular meals."
"You could say that," Alex agreed.
"I haven't seen you around, you fall in love or something?"
"You going to introduce me?"
"He's not here. He's out of town."
Alex nodded again. "If he were here, I'd probably be at home. Walter's not into the bar scene."
"Do you miss it?"
Alex looked inside himself. "Honestly, I'm not sure. When he's home I never give it a thought. But when he's away, well, then it's different."
A passing blonde caught Will's eye. "Hey, there goes Chris. You want me to introduce you? He's a good dancer and you're his type."
"Why not," Alex agreed.
Several hours later, a hot and sweaty Alex made his way toward the exit. He'd been propositioned several times, and even groped in the men's room when he'd gone in to take a leak, but he didn't want to go home with any of them. Sex would have been fun, but he knew it wouldn't nourish his soul the way having sex with Walter did.
Alex breached the door and was enjoying the cool night air, when someone called, "Alex? Alex Krycek?"
Alex knew he should recognize the man's voice, but couldn't place the name or face. He turned around, ready for anything, and saw a big bear of a man wearing motorcycle leathers walking toward him. Alex smiled, recognizing him immediately. "Peter! How are you? And where's Marcus?" Peter and Marcus, in Alex's experience, were almost impossible to separate.
"Howard University Hospital. He's been in for two weeks this time."
"Shit, I'm sorry."
"Yeah, me too. He was doing so good, then the doctor changed his meds and he came down with some secondary infection. I didn't think he'd be able to pull out of it this time, but he's one tough son of a bitch."
Alex smiled warmly, remembering the times Peter and Marcus had taken him home with them. "Tough as steel, and a heart of gold."
Peter sniffed, trying hard not to cry. "That's my Marcus."
"So why aren't you at the hospital?" Alex inquired gently.
"The damn nurse said it was past visiting hours and kicked me out. When I tried to sneak back in, the battle-ax on duty caught me at it. Then she sat me down, fed me a cup of tea, and said that the best thing I could do for Marcus was to let him rest. Said that he was so busy worrying about me that he had barely any energy to spare for himself. That I needed to stop obsessing and do something positive for myself."
"Easier said than done," Alex commented.
"Yeah. And the worst thing is that I know she's right. My stressing out doesn't help Marcus one bit."
"Is there anything I can do?"
Peter thought it over, then asked, "You mean it?"
Alex shrugged. "Sure."
"Come with me to the hospital tomorrow. I know he'd love to see you. And you can make sure I leave before I wear him out. Afterwards, if you want, we can go see The Kinsey Sicks."
"You have tickets?"
Peter bobbed his head in agreement. "We bought 'em the second they went on sale. And you know how much I hate doing things alone. If you don't go, I'll probably get busted trying to sneak into Marcus' room again."
"Oh, sure," Alex laughed, "guilt me into going with you."
"Whatever works," Peter said, laughing himself. "You want me to pick you up, pick me up, or meet at the hospital?"
"You still living at the same place?"
"Seventeen years and counting," Peter said, smiling.
"Then I'll come get you. Say around three o'clock? Visit Marcus, then grab some dinner before the show?"
"Sounds like a plan."
Alex allowed himself to sleep in Sunday morning. In spite of all the exercise he got working for Mosely Security and running with Jack, all the dancing he had done made him realize he wasn't as limber as he once was. The extra sleep did him good, and the long, very hot shower he took later helped even more.
He was feeling much like his normal self when he stopped at Peter and Marcus' place. Peter, eager to get to the hospital and visit Marcus, was impatiently waiting outside when Alex pulled into the parking space in front of their home. Peter looked up, but not recognizing the car, bent down and pulled another weed from their well-tended garden. Alex had to roll down the window and call to him.
On the drive to the hospital, Peter expressed surprise at Alex's taste in automobiles. Once again, Alex found himself explaining that this wasn't his car, it was Walter's.
"Walter, huh? That your boyfriend?"
"We're living together," Alex said, thinking that Walter would not appreciate being called anyone's "boyfriend." Boyfriend was too - Alex wasn't sure what - to describe him. Too casual? Too undignified? He was still trying to figure out what was wrong with the term when he recognized the expectant look on Peter's face.
"I'm sorry, Peter, did you say something?"
"I said, this Walter of yours must be quite a man."
"He is," Alex agreed.
When they reached the hospital, Marcus expressed delight at seeing Alex, and then continued the interrogation into Alex's personal life.
"It's that I already know all of Peter's stories," Marcus tried to explain. "I love being with him, but you, my friend, *you* have stories I've never heard."
Alex, mindful of Walter's position within the FBI, briefly explained that his lover held a government position and that he was a bit of a closet case -- and, with "Don't ask, Don't tell" still the law, that was as it should be.
"What a stupid law," muttered Peter.
"It's the way it is," said Marcus. "And that being the case, what *can* you tell us about the delectable Walter?"
Alex laughed. "You two are hopeless, you know that?" But nevertheless, he began telling them about Walter, describing him as a strong, self- sufficient man with a generous heart. He talked about the help Walter had given him after he'd been stabbed, how Walter had not only taken him in, but helped him find a job he loved.
When he finished, Marcus turned to Peter and smiled. "Sounds a lot like someone else I know."
Alex noticed when Marcus began to feel fatigued, and, as promised, talked Peter into leaving the hospital to get some dinner. Marcus, obviously tired, smiled his thanks and asked Peter to give him a full report of the concert when he returned the next day.
Alex insisted that Peter pick the restaurant, and, being familiar with that part of town, gave him directions to a small restaurant with a flair for French country fare.
During dinner, conversation turned to the upcoming concert. Peter asked Alex if he'd ever been to a Kinsey Sicks performance, and expressed surprise when Alex said he had not. I'm sure you've heard their songs in the clubs a time or two, do you remember the drag act Lady Luck and her sister Miss Fortune used to do to 'Gay Será Será'?"
A look of sudden recognition flashed across Alex's face.
"I see you do," laughed Peter. That's one of theirs. It's all dragcappella -- barber-shop quartet merged with Doo Wop and some seriously funny songs. Peter let his eyes drop down to Alex's butt and looked at it appraisingly. "I hope your Walter's a bottom, 'cause you're going to laugh your ass off."
Alex shook his head, but Peter was right. The satirical lyrics nearly had him rolling in the isles. Alex's stomach muscles were pleasantly sore by the time the concert ended. He commented on them as he drove Peter home, and Peter agreed. "That's the Sicks, laugh until you cry, and then laugh some more. It's not a bad way to go through life."
When they reached his home, Peter invited Alex inside. Although the hour was getting late, Alex had been invigorated by the concert, and knew he was hours away from sleep.
Alex, following Peter to his front door, was ushered inside. The place looked almost exactly like Alex remembered, full of comfortable, over- stuffed furniture and fine art. Marcus, before he retired, had been a noted historian, with unrivaled expertise on art forgery and the manufacture of bogus antiquities.
Peter guided Alex to a couch near the fireplace. He felt a twinge of apprehension, fearing that Peter wanted to make out with him; his previous visits, while ending cordially enough, had inevitably begun as sexual adventures. Peter, as if reading Alex's mind, shook his head. "I can't. It'd be cheating. The agreement was we played together or not at all."
Alex tried to hide his relief, fearing that Peter would misunderstand. But Peter smiled kindly, saying, "You want your Walter, not a substitute."
Alex smiled ruefully. "I'm afraid so."
"It's okay, I feel the same way about Marcus. I miss him a lot." Peter's voice broke, "And I know that one of these days I'm going to lose him. And," Peter was openly sobbing now, "I'll have to survive on my own."
Alex, not knowing what to say, nodded.
Peter cried for a few minutes, then grabbed a tissue from the box on the table next to his chair. He dabbed his eyes and blew his nose. "Thanks for putting up with me," he said.
Alex chuckled, "It's not a problem. I wouldn't do any better if I were in your shoes."
"No?" Peter queried, curious. "I always thought of you as the strong, stoic type."
Alex shrugged. "Depends on the circumstances, I guess. I screamed myself hoarse when my arm got cut off."
"Well who wouldn't?"
"A strong stoic type?" Alex postulated.
Peter laughed. "It's good to see you haven't changed."
Alex smiled and bid his friend a good night, but Peter's parting words rang in his ears the entire drive home.
Monday morning, during their run, Jack noticed that Alex was quieter than usual. Jack being Jack, he decided to broach the subject head-on. "Is something on your mind, Alex?," he asked.
Alex didn't immediately answer, but after they'd rounded a corner, he said "I've been thinking about life." Alex glanced at Jack in time to see him nod. When he didn't seem inclined to comment, Alex continued, "Wondering if anyone really changes, if it's even worth the bother of trying."
"Hard questions," Jack said. "And ones I've thought about myself. Am I the same person now that I was when I was drinking? Or the person I was before I started to drink? Have I been the same person all along? Did *I* change, or it is strictly the presence or absence of alcohol that changed? I've never been able to decide."
It was Alex's turn to nod. The remainder of their run was silent, both men lost in their own thoughts.
When Alex returned from work that evening, he found the credit application where he'd left it, spread out on the kitchen table. Damn it, he wanted a jeep, and he wanted to *buy* one, not *steal* it. And if he was right, that Walter was going to kick him out once he returned, he'd *need* his own car. He might as well admit the truth, he hadn't changed a bit. If getting the jeep required falsifying the credit application, well then, that's what he'd do.
He read the questions once more and realized that the application went back only seven years. An idea began to form.
A half hour later, Alex stood in front of a nondescript steel door in DC's warehouse section. He grinned up at the camera disguised as an empty light socket and then beat a furious tattoo on the door with his fist.
Melvin Frohike, startled by the pounding as it echoed through the nearly empty building, glanced at the security monitor showing the warehouse's front door and cursed.
Surfacing from the 3-D computer game he was testing, Ringo looked disoriented. He peered at Frohike and asked "What's going on?"
"Krycek. That's who's pounding on our door."
Krycek's voice came over the speaker system. "Come on guys, I know you're in there. Open up."
"Think he'll go away if we ignore him?" Frohike asked.
"Krycek? Get real. He'd probably just shoot the hinges off the door."
Muttering imprecations, Frohike made his way to the door and began throwing open the assortment of locks. Hearing the locks turn, Alex was considerate enough to stop pounding.
When the door swung open, Frohike stood barring the entrance. "What do you want?" he asked coldly.
"A favor," Alex grinned.
"And just why should we grant *you* a favor," Ringo inquired, appearing behind Frohike.
"Why don't you invite me in where we can discuss it like gentlemen?"
"*Gentle* men?" Frohike sneered. "I don't think so."
"Now, now," John Byers interrupted, "that's no way to treat a guest. Invited or not."
Alex smiled his most unthreatening smile at John, who smiled back.
Byers looked from Langley to Frohike. "You know as well as I do that he isn't going to give up; if we're going to talk, it may as well be inside where we can be comfortable."
Frohike shot Byers a dark look, but stepped aside and allowed Alex to follow Byers to a part of the warehouse that contained three obviously second-hand couches and a bedraggled lazy-boy. Byers pointed at the least beat-up couch and said, "Have a seat."
"Thanks," Alex replied. He sat.
"Can I get you something to drink?"
Alex forestalled any protests by politely declining.
"What can we do for you?" Byers asked.
"I'd like to ask your help," Alex said.
"Our help?" Langley repeated.
Alex nodded. "I need someone with enough skill to hack into Experian's database."
Langley grinned, forgetting the animosity between them as he began to formulate possible avenues of attack. Frohike and Byers, however, frowned.
"Why?" Byers asked. "And why us?" Frohike added.
"Because no one is more skilled at system intrusion than you three."
Feeling slightly mollified, Frohike nodded. "So whose credit score do you want us to trash?"
Krycek blinked in surprise. "Trashed? No one's." He looked from man to man, carefully noting the expression on each face. He addressed himself to Byers, "You've always played fair with me, and whether or not you believe it, I've helped you guys from behind the scenes whenever I was able. Haven't you ever wondered how you survived that encounter with the professor at the biohazard conference?"
"How do you know about that?" Frohike challenged.
"How do you think?" Alex responded mildly. "Someone let something slip."
The men seemed to think this over, exchanged glances and head shakes with one another, and then nodded once, in unison. "So you're saying we owe you," Byers concluded.
"No, I didn't say that. What I said was that I wanted to ask a favor. Or, if you're uncomfortable with that, we can barter."
The men exchanged more glances. When consensus had been reached, Byers said, "Barter."
"Fair enough," Alex replied. And made his opening offer.
Alex was still high from his successful negotiations with the Lone Gunmen when he returned home. In exchange for a hands-on demonstration of Mosely Security's electronic surveillance solutions, the Gunmen would enter the credit bureau's computer system and create a record that indicated Alex Krycek had behaved much like the average consumer until his employer transfered him to its Eastern European Market Division. At that point, his file went dormant. And, as Russia lacks a system to accumulate credit-related information, nothing further could be learned of Alex's activities until he returned to DC and moved into Walter's apartment.
Having filled in the credit application with the information he'd provided to Ringo, Alex was happily folding up the form when the phone rang. He was feeling too ebullient to wait for the answering machine and picked up the call himself. "Skinner Residence."
"Alex!" Walter said. "I didn't think I'd catch you at home."
Where else would I be, Alex wondered. But Alex was in far too good a mood to risk a confrontation, and simply replied "I'm here."
Walter caught the happiness in Alex's voice and was more convinced than ever that Alex delighted in having the apartment to himself. "So things are good, are they?" Walter asked.
"Everything here's fine," Alex said. "How's the investigation?"
Walter couldn't prevent the sigh from escaping before he answered, "Convoluted. This thing has more layers than an onion. Every time I think I've gotten the whole thing uncovered, it turns out there's another layer to explore."
"It is," Walter agreed.
"Anything I can do for you?" Alex asked.
"Not that I can think of," Walter said, although answer "Fly out here and be with me," had immediately presented itself. Best not to ask for the impossible, he told himself.
"So, see you when I see you?"
"'Fraid so," Walter agreed.
When Maggie O'Neill arrived for class, Alex took her aside. "Lunch?" he asked.
"So you've thought about it?"
She nodded back. "In that case, lunch is on me."
Wearing one of TJ's electronic jammers underneath his jacket, Alex met Maggie O'Neill at the restaurant.
"So you'll help?" Maggie asked.
"I haven't decided yet," Alex replied truthfully. "There are still too many unanswered questions for my liking." He paused, giving Maggie a chance to respond.
When Alex remained silent a little too long for her taste, Maggie prompted, "Such as?"
"How'd they fall into your hands?"
"I inherited them from my dad. What can I say? He may have been born here, but he supported the IRA as fervently as any native-born Irishman."
"But why did he *keep* them? Didn't that defeat the purpose?"
"Dad was still working out the logistics when the the IRA began decommissioning its weapons. At first dad wasn't concerned; he was certain that the disarmament was a ruse, but then his his intermediary with the smugglers had a heart attack and died. And the disarmament proved real. So there's dad, stuck with a storage locker of merchandise he no longer wanted. The only good news was that no one else knew what he had."
"So why not sell them? I'm sure finding private buyers wouldn't have been difficult."
"This may not make sense, but dad didn't want them to fall into the wrong hands. Dad wasn't a terrorist, or at least he didn't see *himself* as one. He believed in Ireland, but he didn't trust anyone, or any other country, to live up to his ideals. That being the case, he would have wanted them restored to their original owners. Which is what I'm trying to do."
"Fair enough. So where are they now?"
"Locker JJ-26. I can show you, or I can give you a map."
"How about both? Map first."
Maggie reached into her purse and pulled out a small hand-drawn map, showing the storage complex and the location of her locker within it.
Alex glanced it over. "I'll want to go there with you, to make sure it contains what you think it does."
"Do you want to go there now?" Maggie asked.
"No, not today. Here, why don't you write your home number on the back," Alex said, handing Maggie her map. "I'll give you a call when I'm ready."
After work, Alex drove to the dealership where, having entered the main building, he asked the receptionist to page Steve Levine, the salesman who had helped him last time he was there. Alex's request was overheard by the floor sales manager, who, with a predatory smile, interrupted. "Steve has the day off," he said, "but I'd be happy to help you."
Alex, smiling just as insincerely, said, "Thanks, but no. I can't stick around, I just wanted to drop this off."
"I'll be sure Steve gets it," the manager assured Alex, taking the application from his hand.
"See that you do," Alex said. His voice sounded perfectly friendly, but his stare was ice cold.
The manager reacted to glittering green, pulling back fractionally. The threat was so subtle as to be almost subliminal. Confused by his own reaction, the manager looked at Alex, trying to determine if he'd suddenly gone off rocker. The small voice in the back of his head continued to scream "Danger!" but all he saw was a well-groomed man smiling at him, saying that he'd wait for Steve's call, and wishing him a good day.
When Alex was out of the showroom, the manager retreated to his desk, where he removed his bottle of Scotch from its hiding place and, with shaking hands, poured himself a stiff drink. "I've got to find a new job," he mumbled to himself, "before working here drives me completely around the bend."
Alex, meanwhile, was cheerfully driving toward the storage complex indicated on Maggie's map. He turned a block early, and went around the facility, keeping a city block between himself and the complex at all times. Nothing looked out of place or unusual. And the scanners he had borrowed from TJ remained perfectly silent.
Alex moved over one block, so that he passed directly by the complex. Street access was from one direction only, through an iron gate directly in front of the main building. Alex could see an electronic keypad; Alex surmised that during office hours the gate would be manned by a guard, but during off hours, access was limited to those who knew the electronic lock sequence. And that access to the facility was probably recorded; the identity of visitors being tracked by the specific code they used to enter.
Alex shook his head at the naiveté of the system designer. Such a system might thwart a simple-minded thief, but it was child's play considering the systems he'd gone up against in the past.
When he reached home, Alex checked the answering machine, but there were no new messages. He picked up the phone, intending to call Walter, but changed his mind. What could he say after all? He was sure Walter wouldn't approve of his falsifying credit applications, his going home with another man (even if sex wasn't involved, and would Walter believe him even though that was the truth?), or that he was considering helping an acquaintance -- not even a friend, an *acquaintance* -- cover-up any number of federal crimes? No, it was better to let Walter maintain his illusions. He was under enough stress from the Stuyvesant case as it was, he didn't need Alex's failings adding to the load.
The remainder of the week flew by. Skinner, as the Assistant Director in charge of Criminal Investigation was, officially, in charge of almost all of the agents stationed in Dallas. And, before the week was out, every single agent under his purview was working on the Stuyvesant case to the exclusion of all else. It was a surprising to everyone except Agent Mulder that nearly two-thirds of the previously active cases had ties to that investigation.
Skinner, although still angry with the Director for sending him to Dallas, acknowledged that he was in the cat-bird seat -- exactly where he needed to be to bring the investigation to a successful conclusion.
The director, during his daily demands for updates and results, hinted that the rapid conclusion of the case would not only be a feather in Skinner's cap, but would increase the likelihood that he would have a place on the top floor. Skinner didn't care. As far as he was concerned, the best reward for successfully closing the case would be his speedy return to DC and, more importantly, home to Alex. Not that he'd had time to talk to him the past few days. The evidence was coming in so quickly, it was a struggle to keep up. And, he had to be ever- vigilant, as a case this complex would unravel quickly if word got out as to what was really going on.
On the surface, Alex's week seemed no different than those of the previous month. For the most part, he kept to his usual schedule, running with Jack, teaching self-defense and gun safety classes at Mosely, making the occasional sales call with Bruce. But after the work day concluded, Alex's day was far from over.
Alex began spending more time with his coworkers, buying them dinner and sounding them out on their willingness to help him with an illegal project. One that, ironically, was for the public good.
TJ, as Alex expected, was delighted to help. He would provide headsets to each team member, monitor the operation from inside his van, provide an electronic lock-pick for the gate, and warn the team if his scanners picked up any sign of law enforcement activity near-by.
Helen Fontenot also responded favorably, going so far as to introduce him to her friend, Susan Milford, who as it turned out, was actually in need of a storage locker in that part of town. Susan rented one in the complex, and Alex, accompanying her on a later visit, helped move a minivan's worth of packing crates into Susan's unit. Then, surreptitiously, he installed a variety of cameras around Locker JJ-26. For good measure, he also used a few old-fashioned tricks, such as gluing a hair to the door in such a way that if the door was opened, the hair would snap in two.
Bruce, when asked if he wanted to go to dinner, laughed. Dinner, he said, was unnecessary; he was already in. He suggested Alex invite Duke instead. Alex took the advice.
Duke, as Alex expected, was his usual taciturn self during dinner. When Alex began describing the Maggie's situation, however, Duke interrupted, asking Alex if he'd considered the disposal side of the equation. Alex admitted he was still working on it. Duke nodded, slowly. "What we need," he said, "are a secure drop-off site and a tame Fibbie."
Alex, thinking Duke was referring to Walter, began to bristle.
Duke, watching Alex's reaction, almost grinned. "No, not Walter," he said dryly. "Someone who won't ask too many questions."
Duke watched Alex settle down before adding, "Who won't let anything wander off, and who won't try a double-cross."
Alex nodded. "You have some one in mind?"
Duke nodded, looking thoughtful. "I think I know just the man."
End of Part Three