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She Hits Like a Girl I thru IV

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She Hits Like a Girl I thru IV

She Hits Like a Girl I thru IV

by Kristen K2

TITLE: She Hits Like a Girl (Like a Girl Universe, #1) AUTHOR: Kristen K2 () WEBSITE: http://lzl.dreamhost.com/ExtFamily/Kristen/KristenMain.html PAIRING: XF: Skinner/Krycek/Kim Cook

RATING: NC-17. This story involves a m/m/f threesome and loving discipline. If you're under legal age, or this sort of thing bothers you, hit your back button now.

SUMMARY: When Walter disappears at Christmastime, who's going to rein in Alex?

NOTES: For those of you who are asking, Kim Cook is Walter Skinner's secretary. Frankly, I think she needs a better agent - CC could do sooo much more with her character if he only applied himself to the task. Scully's not the only woman who works at the Bureau, you know.

DISCLAIMER: If they belonged to me, I'd die a happy woman. As it is, Chris Carter, Fox, and 1013 get all the fun.

DEDICATION: This one is for Ursula, who has wanted me to put Alex and Walter together for awhile, and for Lorelei, who wanted to see me spank poor Alex raw. Hopefully, I killed two birds with one stone here! :)

FEEDBACK: Yes, I'd love it. This is my first attempt at discipline and at slash, so I'd like to know if I hit the mark - no pun intended.


Kim stared dismally at the fallen tree, all the red and green balls crushed into mirrored splinters, the formerly twinkling strings of lights viciously yanked out of the socket, the silver garland strewn helter-skelter, and yearned to burst into tears.

Their first-ever holiday together, and Alex had deliberately ruined it.

What in the hell had gotten into him? He'd been antsy and restless all afternoon, but Kim had seen him moody dozens of times. She hadn't recognized it as a portent of doom. Their repeated inquiries to Alex if he wanted to bake cookies with them had been met with a surly headshake and a frown, so they had gone ahead into the kitchen without him. Which was a shame; Walter had said Alex made great peanut butter-Hershey's kiss cookies. Kim's personal favorites, but she could never quite get them right when she baked them on her own. She had been looking forward to trying his.

And she'd be more than willing to bet that Walter hadn't seen it coming, either. My God, the look on his face when they'd barreled out of the kitchen at the crashing boom from the living room...Kim had seen Walter Skinner angry, she'd seen him frustrated, she'd seen him disappointed. But never all three at the same time, and never in such equal measure.

Alex had just stood there, his lone arm still outstretched to where the Christmas tree had stood upright mere seconds before, his face unapologetic and the challenge clear in his smirk. When Walter took a step toward him, Kim automatically winced, because she knew what was coming next. From the eager spark in his eyes, so did Alex. But Walter did something completely unexpected: he had stopped, grabbed his coat and his gym bag, and bolted out the door without uttering a word.

That was fifteen minutes ago, and Kim hadn't moved since. She could hear Alex upstairs, banging around in his room, while she stared glumly at the disaster before her. One of the things that Walter appreciated about her at work was her skill at mediating. She had unruffled the feathers of many a preening agent stuck cooling their heels in her outer office. But Kim didn't have clue one about how to fix this mess.

Squaring her shoulders, she made her way upstairs, following the noisy creak of opening drawers. Alex was tossing clothes into a duffel bag, striding rapidly from bureau to bed, full hand one trip, empty on the return.

"Alex--"

"Don't talk to me," he snapped. Finished with throwing the clothes into the bag, he struggled with the jammed zipper, until frustration won out over the rest of his storming emotions and he hurled it against the wall, splattering it and sending socks and underwear flying across the carpet. Slumping onto the edge of the bed, all manic energy suddenly depleted, he dropped his head into his hand, leaning his elbow against his knee.

"God-fucking-damn-it," he muttered, gritting his teeth.

Kim crossed the room in a heartbeat and knelt in front of him, running her fingers through his hair until he looked at her, the green in his eyes mixed with love and regret.

"He didn't even say anything, Kim," Alex whispered shakily. "He didn't even look at me."

"He was angry, Alex. He just went to blow off some steam. He's coming back," Kim replied, hoping she was doing the right thing. If Alex skipped out before Walter returned, what was now a disaster would be immediately upgraded to end-of-the-world status. She had to keep him here, whatever the cost. Walter wanted so badly for this to work for the three of them, and deep in her heart, Kim did too. What Alex wanted was up for grabs; Kim had a very difficult time understanding this man with whom she shared her lover.

"I fucked this all up. He was supposed to blow up at me, not at some damn punching bag," Alex said, twisting away from Kim's caress. A not-so-subtle signal that gentle was not the solution to Alex's current problem. Kim didn't particularly like or understand the discipline part of Walter and Alex's relationship, but it wasn't her place to comment. When it was over, Alex was always much more relaxed and open, so the ends, Kim grudgingly admitted, presumably justified the means.

"Is that why you knocked down the tree? To get him to hit you?"

"Sort of. I don't know," he sighed, his hand kneading his thigh erratically, his fingernails turning white from the pressure. His prosthetic hung leadenly in the sleeve of his sweater, but he was so tense that for a brief second Kim imagined his plastic fingers were twitching.

Kim mulled over everything Walter had explained to her about discipline, grappling for a reason why Walter had left as opposed to turning Alex over on his knee, as both Alex and Kim had expected him to do. "Alex," she said slowly, trying to work her way through to the solution, "Walter was angry. Very angry."

"So?"

"Has he ever hit you when he was angry?"

"He did before we became lovers," Alex mumbled unhappily.

She tilted Alex's face toward hers, to make sure he was getting it. "But he didn't love you then. And so, it wasn't discipline back then, was it?"

"No," he muttered under his breath, his thick eyelashes dropping to hide himself from her steady gaze. She jerked his head upward so he couldn't escape. "It was business back then."

"And now it's not," she said, her voice growing more firm. "Now it's loving. So he couldn't spank you, Alex. Not when he was mad. If he had done it now, it would have been about revenge, or spite. It wouldn't have been what you needed."

She watched as he absorbed what she was saying. It didn't go down easy. Finally he sighed heavily again, his eyes still scared and desperate, and lifted his hand to remove hers from his cheek. Squeezing her fingers, he carefully shifted her hand around his waist until it rested on his denim-covered backside.

"What I need," he corrected her. "You could do it." He held her hand in place when she tried to pull it away. "Please, Kim, I don't want to be like this when he gets back."

Kim teetered between horrified and deeply moved. This was the last thing in the world she wanted to do to Alex, but the fact that he trusted her enough to ask was weirdly gratifying. Maybe they were making more progress than she'd thought. When this had all begun, they were each Walter's lovers, not each other's. But things had started to shift lately, and she had assumed, pre-tree pushing, that the two of them were building their own relationship. Just last night, after they had all three collapsed from sexual exhaustion, Alex hadn't snuggled into Walter's other side, as was his normal place to sleep. Instead, he had come around to Kim's side of the bed, and silently curled himself around her, kissing her neck and stroking her gently. It was the first time Alex had ever touched her outside of the heat of the moment, and his surprising tenderness had brought tears to her eyes. Walter had drifted off, an enormous smile pasted on his face at the sight of the two of them. Kim had fallen asleep feeling Walter's wide chest rising and falling evenly under her cheek, and Alex's arm draped heavily over her waist, his breath soft in her ear. She had woken up in exactly the same spot, grinning like a fool.

Kim ached to go back to that idyllic moment more than she could bear.

"Please," Alex repeated, his eyes pleading and his voice raw. "I need you to do this."

How was she supposed to say no?

Kim stood up, and sat next to Alex on the bed, pushing back so her knees bumped up against the mattress. Given the differences in their sizes, she presumed she would need plenty of thigh space. Patting her lap, she said, "Okay. Come here."

The look of unadulterated relief on Alex's face convinced her she was making the right choice. He quickly tugged his jeans and boxers down to his ankles, and draped his half-naked frame across her thighs, pulling a pillow down from the pile against the scrolling iron headboard, and burying his face in it. Even though the majority of his body was across the mattress, his weight was still cumbersome and awkward. Kim shifted both of them until she found the best spot, and took a moment to examine the scene before her. God, did he have a beautiful ass. She never really got the chance to look at it from this angle. Two perfectly round cheeks, with soft, light hair, almost like baby's fuzz, on them - an ass that looked surprisingly better naked than clothed. But then, so did the rest of his body, even though he was still self-conscious about letting her see his truncated arm. She was damn lucky she didn't have to choose between Alex and Walter. Two beautiful and awe-inspiring men, who enjoyed making love with her as much as they did with each other. The three of them were on the verge of building a wonderful life together. As long as they could get through this awkward beginning stage.

"Kim?"

His nervous tone was a reality check she didn't want. She was about to inflict pain on her lover, on purpose. Resting her hand against his upper thigh, she felt his muscles clench in anticipation. But as her hand made that first downward motion, her resolve slipped, and her swing ended in a gentle tap.

Alex didn't move, but he didn't need to. Kim knew that she failed. It hurt.

She looked up at the ceiling to avoid seeing what she was about to do, and raised her hand up and down fast, with a resounding thwack! Alex murmured once into the pillow, but still didn't move. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!

He was so quiet, she started to panic. Usually by the third or fourth slap, he was babbling uncontrollably about various sins he thought he'd committed over the entire course of his life. Thinking about the times she'd seen Walter do this, she realized her mistake. Clearing her throat, she squeaked, "Why am I doing this, Alex?"

"Be-because I knocked down the Christmas tree," he hissed out between swats.

"And why did you do that?"

Alex shifted suddenly on her lap, and Kim's gaze flew downwards. His ass was all splotchy and uneven in color, but it wasn't even close to the shade of red it became when Walter spanked him. Now it was only a very pale pink. Her face cheeks flamed redder outside in the cold. She smacked down a little harder on her next series of strokes.

"Alex! Tell me why."

An incoherent sound emanated from the pillow, as he shook his head. Kim's hand froze mid-slap, waiting until he turned his face to look at her quizzically. His eyes were still glittering, not at all like the dazed expression he normally got from the endorphin rush.

"Tell me," she threatened in the most menacing tone she had. It sounded like a hummingbird trying to scare an elephant.

"No," he glowered.

They sat that way, staring down each other, until Kim remembered who had the upper hand. So she used it. Hard.

"Ow!"

"Tell me."

He squirmed, but Kim held him firmly at the waist, and continued her hard and fast smacks, peppering his cheeks and upper thighs randomly. Having little practice at this, she had no control over where her hand would land. Finally, as her palm began to tingle from overuse, he started to sputter.

"Don't...shit...okay! I did it so Walter would pay attention to me again! I was jealous, alright! Now stop it!"

Kim slowed the rhythm and pressure, but still kept up a steady stream of swats. Mostly because her arm was tired, but also because she knew this was how Walter ended his sessions. "Jealous of what?"

Alex's voice was uneven, as if he was trying not to cry, but Kim didn't think it had anything to do with the physical pain. His butt cheeks were still barely red. This was coming from his wounded heart.

"J-jealous of you and W-walter. You two were laughing in the kitchen, ig-ignoring me...I could have been the fucking tree for all you were noticing."

Shocked by his confession, Kim's hand motion ceased mid-air. Jealous? He was jealous of them? How the hell could she punish him for something she herself felt? He was too bulky to move off her lap, so she reached up and stroked his sleek hair. Alex shuddered, and dug his head deeper into the pillow, shrinking from her touch.

"It's like you two have your own language," he continued raggedly. "Walter doesn't even finish his sentences, and you know what he's talking about. It's as if you can read his mind."

"Oh, Alex," Kim sighed. With great effort, she managed to lift his legs high enough so she could scoot out from underneath. Once freed, she lay down next to him, pulling him into her arms. He came without a fight, burrowing his face in her neck, which soon dampened from his hot tears leaking erratically.

When she thought he was able to listen, she said, "Walter and I have worked together for a long time, it's only natural we understand each other without a lot of explanation. But we never meant to make you feel left out. I'm so sorry if I did that."

He sniffled, "You guys were like that when I first met you, too. I remember the first time I ever saw you two working together. Skinner was striding down the hall on his way to a meeting, and you had a stack of files in your hand. You were racing to keep up with him, as he barked out which ones he needed. And you handed him each file before he got the whole name out. I never saw anybody that in sync with someone else before."

Kim's eyes closed as she remembered what she had been like back then, and she smiled as she stroked Alex's back in a soothing motion. "Appearances are deceiving, as you should know better than anyone."

"Please, Kim, I know what I saw. What I still see. You and Walter belong together."

"Alex, what you saw was me trying frantically not to lose my job. I'm gonna let you in a little secret, okay? When you came to the Bureau, I'd only been working for him for about a month, and I really didn't know him, or his division, very well. And even though he was very considerate and polite to me, well, you know his reputation as AD Skinner." A muffled snort vibrated against her neck. "So I had every damn file of every open case in my hands, just in case he wanted one of them. I cringed every time a new case appeared on his desk, because it was one more damn folder to lug around."

"But you two are in sync now," he insisted. "I'm just in the way."

Kim nudged Alex's head back and propped hers on her hand. She wanted to be looking at him when she said this. His thick lashes glistened with leftover tears, the expression behind the green irises having evolved from wild-eyed to desolate. She skimmed her fingers across his jaw line, and was relieved when he didn't flinch.

"It took time, and hard work. He's not an easy man to get to know, but he's well worth the trouble. And so are you, Alex. You were only half-right when you said Walter and I belong together. You belong with Walter, too. And with me," she finished, surprised at her own vehemence. But it was true; Alex belonged with them, and she didn't want it any other way. Not anymore.

His green gaze caught hers, then slid away. "I belong?" he asked, still skeptical.

"Of course you do. I'm very, very sorry if I made you feel like you don't. Maybe...maybe I was a little jealous of you, too."

"Jealous of what?"

Kim sighed, the guilt staining her cheeks. "When Walter finally told me that he loved you, and he wanted both of us in his life, I didn't take it well, Alex. I guess I was a little insulted. That I wasn't enough for him to be happy. It took me awhile to adjust."

"Me, too," he confessed. "I guess I'm not doing it as well as you."

"I disagree," she smiled. "Last night, when you caressed me to sleep, was one of the most amazing nights of my life."

His gaze, which had been wandering shyly along her shoulder, lifted to hers. "Really?"

"Really. And I'm sorry I didn't do a very good job, but I'm very touched you wanted me to try to help you just now."

"I think you did a fine job," he said, his voice rough.

Kim's hand drifted down his back, her touch deliberately light as she reached his butt. His skin was only tepidly warm under her fingers, so she didn't think she had inflicted any permanent pain, thankfully. "Does it hurt? I could get you some cream."

It looked liked Alex was fighting back a laugh. "No, it's fine. I can barely feel it." He caught her hand, the one she'd used on his ass, and inspected it thoroughly. "I think you got hurt more than I did. Your palm is all swollen and red." He pressed his lips to the center of her hand, kissing it softly. "I'm sorry."

"Alex..." Kim faltered, not sure if now was the right time to delve into this. But her desire to understand, even a little, won out over her common sense. "Why?"

"Why what?" he asked, his mouth still soft against her overheated palm.

"Why...why do you..."

"Why do I need to be spanked?"

Kim nodded her head, watching his reaction carefully. He seemed okay with discussing this, but she didn't want to push.

Alex sighed, and moved her hand away, resting it on his shoulder. "I think somewhere along the way, I lost my sense of right and wrong. The people I worked for...they didn't have any qualms about doing whatever they felt was appropriate for a situation. Threats, murder, kidnapping, it didn't matter. Nothing meant anything to them, and in order to do my job, I guess I followed their example. When Walter rescued me, I didn't have any concept of how normal people in society behaved anymore. I'm learning boundaries again, almost like a child does."

"But why spanking?"

He gave her a tiny smile, rapping his knuckles against his forehead. "Sometimes the lesson doesn't sink into my thick skull. Physical pain breaks down the barriers I erected inside myself, so I have to listen to what Walter is saying. It clears my head, in a way. That's the easiest explanation I can give. Does it make any sense?"

"A little," Kim answered. "I'm sorry I couldn't help you more with that."

Unexpectedly, Alex leaned over and gave her a kiss. "You did, Kim. Not because you hurt me, but because you were willing to try. I know it upsets you...honestly, I didn't think you would do it. I'm grateful you did."

Kim closed her eyes, digesting everything. This could certainly count as progress, in a number of ways. She and Alex still had a long way to go, but, for the first time, she thought they might just get there. That overwhelming sense of peace she felt last night, nestled between Walter and Alex, might become a regular thing.

Suddenly Kim understood why Walter wanted this so much. It made her feel complete.

"Come on," she said as she sat up, tugging on Alex's arm so he joined her. "There's work to be done downstairs before Walter gets back. We've got to clean up that mess you made." She tossed teasingly over her shoulder as she reached the stairs, "And you owe me some cookies, pal. Get that red ass of yours in the kitchen, pronto."

Alex waited until they were both downstairs before replying, his earlier volatile mood clearly gone. His face twisted as he struggled to hold back his sly grin.

"Pink ass," he corrected her. "You hit like a girl."

A girl? She hit like a girl? Oh man, just wait until the next time he was cruisin' for a bruisin', as her brother used to call it. Alex Krycek wouldn't know what hit him. Literally.

Before she could come up with an appropriate retort, Alex spun her into his embrace and kissed her soundly. When he finally let her up for air, his toothy smile lit up the room as brightly as the Christmas tree had and would again.

"My girl," he said sweetly, curling a strand of hair behind her ear. "Merry Christmas, Kim."

"Merry Christmas, Alex," she grinned back, knowing exactly what the phrase 'my girl' implied. Reading Alex's mind wasn't as difficult as it seemed, after all.

The last thought that entered Kim's happily-buzzing brain cells before she started cleaning up the mess in the living room, was that it didn't matter if the water from the tree holder had soaked the presents underneath. She and Alex were about to give Walter Skinner the best gift of all.

Love.

THE END


Merry belated Christmas one and all! Please send feedback to... Kristen K2 ()



TITLE: With-a-Heart (Like a Girl Universe, #2) AUTHOR: Kristen K2 () WEBSITE: http://lzl.dreamhost.com/ExtFamily/Kristen/KristenMain.html PAIRING: XF: Skinner/Krycek/Kim Cook

RATING: NC-17. This story involves a m/m/f threesome and loving discipline. If you're under legal age, or this sort of thing bothers you, hit your back button now. No sex yet, just discipline.

SUMMARY: Alex attempts to understand the strange new creature in his life.

NOTES: For those of you who are asking, Kim Cook is Walter Skinner's secretary. To follow the storyline, you should probably read the stories in order. All can be found at the Persuaders archive.

DISCLAIMER: If they belonged to me, I'd die a happy woman. As it is, Chris Carter, Fox, and 1013 get all the fun.

DEDICATION: Many, many heartfelt thanks to Lorelei, without whose constant guidance and devotion to spanking the Rat, this would have never been written. For a new armchair-quarterback, your aim is pretty fantastic!

SPECIAL THANKS: And a very special thanks to Ursula, for her tireless beta and support. My stories never feel ready for prime-time without your input.

FEEDBACK: Yes, I'd love it.


What Alex Krycek knew about women you could fit into a thimble.

With room left over for the tip of his thumb. And a shot of vodka.

Even during his horny teenage years, he'd never understood them. They certainly had expressed interest in him, though. His great-aunt, his reluctant guardian after his parents were killed, had been forced to get an unlisted number a week after Alex hit puberty. Man, was she pissed off at him for that; as though he had any control over how he looked. It wasn't his fault that girls -- and even the occasional curious boy -- flocked around him. While he did take advantage of the hormone-induced attention, he hadn't done anything to encourage it, either.

Notes had been constantly stuffed into his locker or his desk. One girl was so bold as to cram one into his back pants pocket while he walked down the hallway between classes, skirting around clumps of other students, separated into their various cliques, none of which included or interested him. Typical notes were written in purple or sky-blue or magenta ink, full of scribbly doodles and fat exclamation points (!!!) and signed by girls who always ended their names with an "i" and a heart for the dot above the letter. Why the fuck would he ever want to talk to a girl who insisted on changing a perfectly good name like Deborah to Debbi-with-a-heart?

He liked their bodies, so he put up with all the other cringe-worthy crap. Girls were soft, curvy, giggly creatures that smelled good and tasted even better and made his dick leap to attention. Of course, back then, his flag raised to full-mast whenever a breeze passed. Not that much different from now, he thought to himself with a chuckle. Walter had a similar effect on him, even at an age where surprise boners were supposed to be a fond memory. Hell, so did Kim, he grudgingly admitted, the tiniest of smiles crossing his face.

But he couldn't fathom how girls' minds worked. Not then and not now. It boggled him that they put so much emphasis on the weirdest things. Like if he was going to call them back, or whether or not the color of their sweater matched their nail polish. Who cared? If he had his way, the damn sweater would be on the floor by the bed soon enough. And talking...Jesus. They always wanted to talk. About where the relationship was going, what he was thinking, on and on and on.

Finally, Alex had conceded defeat and fucked his high school chemistry lab partner, Matt. No muss, no fuss, just wall-to-wall orgasms. Alex hadn't looked back. As time went on, he sometimes missed the soft, subtle appeal of females, and he indulged the urge now and again, but overall he preferred the uncomplicated company of men. Men who, he presumed, had the same disinclination to 'discuss their feelings' as he did. Men who just wanted a nice fast fuck, and were more than willing to give Alex the same.

Falling in love with Walter Skinner had promptly shot Alex's carefully designed strategy straight to hell. Debbi-with-a-heart had nothing on Walter Skinner when it came to discussing his feelings. The man made her look like an amateur pop psychologist, a Dr. Laura of the Clearasil set. How in the hell was Alex supposed to have known that behind the stern and silent AD of Bureau legend lurked such an introspective guy? It had irritated him beyond belief initially, until Walter had looked him dead in the eye and told Alex he had no intention of holding back, as he had with his late wife. One important relationship was all that Walter was willing to sacrifice to his hardheadedness, and he wasn't about to make the same mistake with theirs. He wouldn't risk losing Alex too.

Alex's irritation had evaporated like a drop of water in the Sahara.

He wanted to do the same with Walter, truly he did, but it was often impossible to put that plan into action. He'd look at his lover, sated and panting on the bed, staring tenderly at him with the warmest, sexiest brown eyes Alex had ever seen, and the words he wanted desperately to say would die unsaid on the tip of his tongue. Inevitably, a scene from the sitcom Happy Days that he used to watch as a kid would pop into his brain. The Fonz couldn't say 'I love you', either. He'd try and try, stopping mid-syllable. His face would contort as he would say, 'I lo--, I lo--', then after a few fruitless attempts, he'd grimace and give up. It always got a big laugh out of the audience. It wasn't nearly as funny when it happened in real life.

Thankfully, Walter didn't put up with Alex's nonsense anymore. It had taken a long time, and a lot of idiotic moves on Alex's part, before Walter had laid down the law. Getting a blistered ass wasn't the ideal situation, but it got the job done. And Alex was so deliriously happy when it was over, when Walter would bundle him into his big arms, stroking and petting him, telling him how loved he was, how much he meant to Walter. It made the pain worth every damn tear he shed. The best part was that Alex could finally say all the things he yearned to. It made him face up to the things he couldn't face on his own. Walter made him face up to that, he corrected himself. With his strong hand, and his even stronger love.

Alex unconsciously scuffed his boot against the sidewalk as it occurred to him that this stunt he was pulling was likely to earn him a severe case of 'hot-butt', as Kim called it. But he couldn't help it. He had to know.

Ever since Kim had insinuated herself into his and Walter's life, Alex had been struggling valiantly to re-open that old Pandora's box. To try to understand girls. Women, he amended. They preferred to be called women, or so he'd been informed over the years. Even the simple act of determining what to call them was cause for bewilderment; their wildly different reactions alone made him regret the few times he had made an effort to talk to them. Why did some smile and blush prettily when he called them girls, yet others looked like they wanted to punch his lights out? For example, Kim didn't seem to mind, but never on his most clueless day would he utter that word within a hundred mile radius of Dana Scully. He might be reckless at times, but he didn't have a death wish.

Specifically, Alex wanted to understand Kim Cook. She was still such a mystery to him, it drove him up the wall. The few tantalizing things he knew about her only made her more baffling. She was sweet-natured, and funny, and she smelled like peaches, Alex's favorite fruit. She was a great cuddler, and she got Walter to relax in a way Alex was incapable of accomplishing. But she had a tough streak in her he'd never noticed when he used to see her at the Bureau. And she was a slob; their bathroom counter was now full of so many bottles and hair clips and girly crap it took Alex a full two minutes each morning to find the toothpaste. She didn't even live with them, not yet, but her stuff was everywhere, which weirdly pleased him almost as much as it annoyed him.

Nobody asked his opinion, but he didn't think she needed to wear all that junk; she looked her best right when she woke up, all tousled and dewy-eyed and warm from sleep. Morning Kim was frighteningly cute to Alex. Much better than Where's-My-Coffee Walter. Some people were early birds, and others were night owls, Alex sighed. Unfortunately, he was both, but now he had someone to snuggle with at both ends of the day.

There were plenty of other things about the little redhead that threw Alex off-balance. That seemingly effortless way she and Walter communicated, for one. It still bugged Alex that the two of them were so in tune with each other, but he tried not to let his jealousy consume him as much as he could. Watching them together, speaking in half-sentences that even a professional cryptographer couldn't decipher, smiling at one another without words, filled Alex with such longing, he sometimes felt a physical pang in his chest. Often, Walter would catch his eye over Kim's shoulder, giving him a silent smile that spoke volumes, and Alex's loneliness vanished. Other times the outcast feeling remained, invariably resulting in hot-butt time. His ass clenched involuntarily at the memory.

Another thing that astonished Alex was the way she would stay in the room when he got spanked, even when he knew she wanted to be anywhere but there. She hovered by the nearest door, poised for flight, her blue eyes huge and bright with unshed tears, silently hugging her tensed frame, but not intervening. The first time Walter had disciplined him when Kim was there, Walter had asked her if she wanted to leave before it began. With the oddest straightening of her shoulders, she had looked directly at Alex, and asked him his preference. Nobody in the room had been more surprised than him when he heard his own voice asking her to stay.

And she had, which awed Alex. He had assumed she'd be out the door so fast she'd leave skid marks. He'd counted on it, in fact; when he later tried to analyze why he wanted her there, he figured it stemmed from his still-abundant jealousy. She'd see what he and Walter had agreed to, and it would repulse her enough to give up, and leave the two of them alone. But Kim wasn't a quitter, a discovery Alex was secretly happy to make. He'd rather have a hot poker stuck in his eye than tell her that, though.

But in all the time since she had become a part of his life, there was nothing, nothing, that she had done or said that had shocked him more than what she had done this morning. He knew, deep in his gut, that she had only asked him to join her and her friend for drinks and dinner out of pity. Walter had to work late catching up on paperwork, insisting that Kim not stay late with him, and Alex hadn't had any plans outside of watching a hockey game on television. Kim didn't really want him to go with her, he assumed; she was just being polite. So he had automatically turned her down, ignoring Walter's sigh of disappointment, and brushing off her strangely hurt expression as a reaction to his brusque reply. The fact she had asked at all moved him more than he cared to admit. And it set his curiosity on fire.

As on fire as his ass would be if Walter found out that Alex had followed Kim to the restaurant, and was currently watching her and her friend talking animatedly inside. The place was split into two sections, bar and restaurant, and there was a half-wall separating the different areas. The two girls -- damn, he did it again -- the two women were in the bar area, at a small table right up against the wall. Kim's back was to the window where he stood outside, but her red hair shimmered from the light above the table, making it easy to locate her in the bustling crowd. She'd seemed anxious when she'd first arrived, fidgeting nervously, but that had been at least an hour ago, and she'd had a few drinks since, so she was probably over whatever had been bothering her earlier. By now, he could see her shoulders shaking whenever she laughed at something her friend said. Not quite the more-appealing full-body shake of laughter she gave when Alex told her a joke, but it was close.

The overhead light glistened over the few golden strands of Kim's coppery hair whenever her head turned toward the entrance, which gave him fair warning to duck out of her line of vision. He didn't think Kim would rat him out to Walter, but Alex wasn't taking any chances. Walter had been very clear that one of the things that would get Alex in trouble was a return to his old ways. No spying, no B&E, no tailing. So far, he was batting 2 for 3. Hot-butt for sure if he got caught, so an extra dose of diligence was required.

Alex checked out the friend, more out of habit than anything else. A petite woman, like Kim was, with a head of springy dark brown curls and an enormous smile. Pretty in a ethereal way, but not nearly as attractive as her dinner companion, in Alex's estimation. Kim talked about Melanie often; they'd been roommates in college, and were still very close. Melanie worked at the Department of Justice, as a lawyer in the Civil Rights division; and Alex knew she was on the up-and-up. He'd done some research on the woman after Kim mentioned her the first time, and had even gone to court once to see her in action, and to memorize her appearance. It never hurt to be too careful, even if he was no longer a wanted fugitive.

But she was perfectly harmless, thankfully. If Kim's friend had had ties to the Consortium, as he had feared, then he might have had to break Rule Number One. And killing anyone, even justifiably, headed the top of the list of things he could no longer do. Ever. No matter what. Walter hadn't said it in precisely those words, but Alex was certain his punishment wouldn't be a mere spanking; total banishment from a life he was beginning to hope was his forever would be the only fitting response. Of that, Alex had no doubt.

When one of the many sleazeballs who'd been ogling the two women from the bar approached their table, Alex immediately abandoned his post at the window and made his way into the crowded foyer of the restaurant. He still didn't want Kim to know he was there, but if she needed some help getting rid of the pesky jerk, Alex wanted to be close enough to do some decent damage. His stealthy advance toward the bar section ceased mid-step when he saw the man stomp back to his stool within moments of his uninvited arrival at the women's table. From the crestfallen look on the asshole's face, Alex knew he'd just been handed his balls back on a platter. That's my girl, he chuckled, ducking back into the crowd milling by the entrance.

Now that he was inside, he couldn't bring himself to leave. It was warmer in here, anyway. And the empty table just on the other side of the half-wall that separated the bar from the restaurant beckoned invitingly. If he snagged that seat, he could hear everything Kim and Melanie were saying. It wasn't eavesdropping, he convinced himself. He was just looking out for her, in case some other jackass at the bar didn't know how to take no for an answer. Yeah, that's what he tell Walter if he found out. He might even be impressed by Alex's chivalry.

Yeah, right.

Kim and Melanie were giggling like a pair of teenaged girls-with-hearts as he slipped into the booth, careful not to draw their attention.

"Oh my God, did you see that rug?" Melanie exclaimed. "You'd think he'd realize it's a totally different color than the rest of his hair."

"Maybe he bought it in a poorly lit store," Kim said merrily. "Ugh, I hate toupees. So what if a guy's bald? What's the big deal?"

Alex had to agree with her assessment, but he was glad all the same he didn't have the same problem. Walter's smooth scalp was very sexy, but on him...he'd look like a cue ball, for sure.

"I like a full head of hair, myself. Gives me something to, ah, hang on to," Melanie snickered.

"There's always his ears," Kim said between another round of laughter. "The headboard works too, in a pinch."

Alex nearly swallowed his tongue.

Jesus. Is this what women talked about when they were alone? Kim wasn't exactly shy in bed, but she didn't talk about sex, at least not around Alex. He leaned closer to the wall, fascinated.

"Jeez, where's the hostess? Isn't there a free table yet?" Kim asked. The timely query provided Alex the opportunity to turn and glare a clear 'back-off' signal to the perky woman he'd seen moments ago in the foyer. She halted her approach toward him and timidly went back to her station. "I'm getting hungry."

"Yeah, me too. But she said it might be a while, so just relax. What about the one in the middle? Blue sweater, blond, wiry frame?" Melanie commented.

"Married," Kim replied. "Not even worth considering."

"I don't see a ring."

"Probably in his pocket, for when he gets home to the missus. But he's got that white indent on his left ring finger, which is a dead giveaway. Walter," Kim paused, "ah, Mr. Skinner used to have one too. That's how I knew, before he...um, before the divorce."

"Oh, well then...hey, wait a minute! You called him Walter. You never...oh my God, why didn't I catch this before?!" Melanie's voice sped up, then dropped a notch in volume. "How long were you planning on letting me check out guys for you, when it's obvious you don't need my help? Hmm, Kimmy? Were you ever going to clue me in?"

"I'm sure I don't know what you're implying," Kim answered airily. "Besides, I thought we were looking for someone for you."

"Oh please." A very non-dainty snort emanated from the other side of the wall. "Your face is as red as a tomato! Jeez, why didn't you say something? Oh my God, how long has this been going on? Why didn't you tell me?"

A wooden chair squeaked loudly against the floor. Kim must be squirming, Alex surmised. He knew her body language, especially when she was uncomfortable. Her nervous fidgeting was something he recognized all too well. He wondered why she hadn't told her closest friend she was involved with Walter. Alex was proud as hell, but he didn't have anyone to crow to.

"Mel, now's not really the time, and..."

"Who are you looking for?" the other woman interjected.

"Huh?"

"You've been sneaking peeks at the door since we got here. Did you invite Walter to join us? You said you might bring someone."

"No, not Walter. Somebody else. I thought maybe he'd change his mind, but I guess not," Kim sighed. If he didn't know any better, Alex could have sworn she sounded unhappy.

"Somebody else? Who? I'm getting very confused by all this. Kimmy, what the hell haven't you been telling me?"

"Mel, it's kind of complicated. And here's not a good place to discuss...I mean, I was going to tell you if things had turned out differently, but they...just drop it, alright? It doesn't matter."

Kim's friend sure was a persistent little thing, Alex thought with admiration, as she continued to pepper Kim with questions. But Kim didn't give her a morsel of information. She could be as stubborn as he was when she wanted to be.

His cell phone nearly gave him a heart attack when it started ringing in his breast pocket.

"Hello?" he muttered under his breath, moving his head to the other side of the booth seat, so Kim wouldn't hear his voice. The place was packed with people and pretty noisy over on her side of the wall, so maybe he still had a slim prayer of staying invisible.

"You have exactly four minutes to get your ass out of there and in my car," Walter said abruptly. "I'm three blocks south, in the alley off DuPont. Don't make me come in there and get you."

With that, he disconnected, and Alex was left staring at a dead receiver.

Oh shit.

His goose was cooked.

Omniscient Walter strikes again, Alex thought dismally, as he automatically slunk out of the restaurant, oblivious to the relieved look on the hostess's face. He jammed his hand into his pocket as he made tracks toward the alley, his stomach churning with a clammy anxiety. How many rules had he broken tonight, anyway? Not many, right? Better make sure to point out his chivalrous deed, that might buy him some wiggle room.

When Alex spotted Walter leaning against the hood of his car, the dark, settled look on his lover's face quickly erased any thoughts of wiggle room. Alex's steps slowed of their own volition as he walked down the long, ominously empty space, the scrape of his boots against the asphalt echoing along the brick walls. Still dressed in his official Bureau attire, Walter's air of authority seemed to envelop the whole alley, if not the entire metropolitan area. His overcoat was unbuttoned, displaying an ocean of white cut in half by his tie. Arms folded over at his broad chest, his long legs were crossed at the ankles as he awaited Alex.

The alley itself was dark and sleazy, but neither the rats scurrying in the corners nor any potential thieves stood a chance with FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner at his most intimidating. Alex himself had extensive experience with acting menacing, but just the sight of Walter as he rounded the corner caused a nervous sweat to break out along his hairline.

"Hey," he said by way of avoiding the unavoidable, "how'd the paperwork go?"

An eyebrow lifted fractionally over the wirerims. "Fine, thanks. I was able to get through it much faster once everyone left for the day."

Alex shuffled his feet, not letting his eyes rest anywhere close to the determined brown ones ten feet in front of him. "That's great. I'm sure--"

"Alex." Walter stopped him cold, waiting until Alex looked at him directly. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"We're discussing your day at work, Walter. I'm sure you're beat after such a long day. Maybe we should head home. I can make some dinner..."

Walter merely shook his head. And waited.

"I was just making sure she was okay," Alex blurted out. "There were guys hitting on her in there!"

Another wordless eyebrow lift.

Silence, painfully slow in its growth, enfolded both men in a cocoon.

Alex knew he was supposed to say something, anything, but his throat was suddenly too tight to get any air inside his lungs, let alone attempt speech. In his head, he understood that Walter would never really, truly, hurt him, not in any way that Alex wouldn't allow. Yet the way his lover looked at this moment, dark and still and threatening in this cold, empty alley...it was scaring the crap out of him.

Walter's voice was even, but a hidden depth hinting at danger rippled below the surface. "You seem a little nervous, Alex. Is something the matter?"

"No," he fibbed, then looked away from those penetrating brown eyes.

"Are you frightened?"

Alex's head started to nod, but he made it stop before it completed the down swing. This was ridiculous, being afraid of Walter. He was an assassin, well a former one, at any rate. If Walter ever really did try to hurt him, Alex was more than capable of defending himself. His shoulders unconsciously braced, as he stood up straighter.

"Alex," Walter continued in that deadly calm, deadly serious, deadly lethal voice, "I want you to use that over-active imagination of yours for a different purpose. Okay?"

"Okay," he squeaked. Squeaked? Jesus, what was the matter with him?

"Okay. You know who I am, right here and right now. You know that I love you, and I'm not going to hurt you. But you're still a little scared, aren't you?" Alex's head gave an infinitesimal nod, without his overt knowledge or permission. "I suspect that the location is a factor. In the daylight, this alley would be simply the dump it is. But in the dark, you can't tell that, can you? There's all kinds of things that could be hiding in the corners, waiting in ambush."

Alex nodded again, harder and more consciously, amazed that Walter had pinpointed precisely what was agitating him.

"And then there's me. Wearing my 'boss armor', as you often call it. Both you and Kim tell me that when I'm in my suit and tie, I cut an imposing figure," Walter continued, sounding a little amused at the idea.

"Sexy, too," Alex countered slyly. Walter's expression never broke from his stern demeanor, but his eyes absorbed the compliment, and the feeble attempt to change the subject.

"Look down at what you're wearing, Alex," Walter commanded. Alex did as requested. Nothing out of the ordinary; he wore his standard outfit. Jeans, the thick woolen sweater that Kim had given him for Christmas, boots, leather jacket, and gloves. A corner of his brain noted everything was black, but that wasn't unusual.

His head bobbed up, confused. "So?"

"So, imagine you're a woman. A woman who leaves work one evening, on a cold, dark night, and walks a few blocks to the Metro, on her way to meet a friend for dinner. You're on the petite side, and even though one of your lovers is teaching you to box, you're not exceptionally strong. You don't carry a gun, or any kind of weapon, because for the most part, you don't need them. You've got two men who can protect you, if the need arises. But neither of those men are with you right now. And even though you can't see anyone, there's someone following you as you walk down the street, small and defenseless. You can't say exactly why you know someone is there, you just do. All you can see behind you is the dark, and for a split second, you think you see something, a tall, looming, silent presence in the shadows. But then it disappears, and a shiver of fear runs downs your spine, as you wonder if your mind is playing tricks on you. Even on the train, you feel like someone is watching you, but still he manages to elude you. It isn't until after you thankfully reach your destination without incident, and call one of your lovers for reassurance, that you start to feel safe again."

Alex swallowed, seeing the picture Walter drew all too clearly. Viewing it from her perspective made him feel like a creep, no better than the jerks in the bar. Worse than those idiots. Kim hadn't been afraid of them, but she'd called for reinforcements to defend herself against Alex. "I didn't think of that. I'm sorry. Did she tell you it was me?"

Walter shook his head. "She didn't know it was you when she called. I figured that out on my own."

"She didn't know..." Alex paused, the guilt crashing over him. Suddenly he felt lower than a worm. "Shit. That's why she was so nervous earlier. She thinks I'm a stalker, or a r-rapist."

Walter stood and crossed the space between them, cupping Alex's chin in his hand. His long fingers stroked lightly across Alex's smoothly-shaven skin. "She doesn't think any such thing, Alex. Neither do I. But I wanted you to see how your actions affected her. I know you didn't mean to scare her."

"I'm so sorry, Walter," he whispered, leaning into that strong hand.

"I know you are. But you have to learn to think before you act sometimes. You're no longer a criminal, but you still cut as imposing a figure as I do. Especially in the dark. Tell me, if you wanted to go with her, why did you turn her down when she asked? Why did you feel the need to tail her?"

"She...she didn't want me to go," he mumbled. "She just felt sorry for me."

A hot mouth brushed against his right temple in a brief kiss, and Alex ached badly to reach over and let that mouth consume him. They stood very close together, and Walter still held his face gently, but there were in public, even in this dark alley. Walter had a job and a reputation to maintain, so Alex forced himself to stay where he was.

"Kim cares about you a great deal," Walter said softly. "It wasn't pity."

"Then why did she ask me?" he asked, unconvinced.

His chin was lifted up so he was forced to look into Walter's eyes. His bemused, warm, chocolate eyes. "I think she might have been asking you on a date, Alex."

A date? The thought astounded him. Kim had asked him on a date? Just the two of them, without Walter?

"But...but her friend is there," he sputtered.

"Melanie is a very important person to Kim. Keeping us a secret from her best friend has been stressful for her," Walter said mildly, although his tone was very serious.

Alex mulled that over, unable to grasp the concept. "Are you saying Kim wanted me to meet her friend as her... her..." he stopped, not sure what term he should use. He wasn't Kim's boyfriend, or her lover, was he? Walter was those things to her. Alex wasn't. Right?

Walter grinned. "Yes, as her lover. You are her lover, Alex, just as much as I am. And she's mine, and yours." His mouth brushed Alex's temple again, his voice hot and deep in Alex's ear. "And you're mine, and hers. That's what the three of us are, together. We all belong to each other."

Alex's mind was spinning. "Why...then why didn't she tell me that?" he asked accusingly, wildly searching for someone else to blame.

Walter leaned back against the car again, folding his arms back up in his don't-give-me-shit stance, and a shiver of emptiness ran down Alex's spine at the loss of the big man's warmth. "You turned her down pretty fast, pal. I doubt she wanted to get shot down twice in thirty seconds. Not before breakfast."

It was almost encouraging to note that years after he'd forgotten his high school locker combination, his abysmal track record with the fairer sex was still intact, Alex mused wryly. At least he was consistent in one aspect of his life.

"Maybe...maybe I could make it up to her," he suggested, jerking his head toward the street. "We could both go in and join them for dinner."

"In a little while," Walter said, the settled tone back in his voice. "First we need to deal with what you did."

A familiar, curious mix of dread and relief skittered across Alex's nervous system. Hot-butt time was rapidly approaching.

"Alex." The stern implacability in Walter's voice and eyes left not one millimeter of wiggle room. "I count three offenses. I'd like you to tell me what they are."

Three?

"I followed Kim and used some of my old spying techniques," he offered.

"That's one."

Damn, he was hoping that counted as two separate mistakes. "I, uh, might have heard a little bit of conversation before you called me," he mumbled.

"I saw you sitting in there for at least ten minutes, Alex. I'm sure you heard more than a little," Walter said dryly.

Alex was stunned. "You saw me?"

"Do you think you're the only one who knows how to conduct an effective surveillance?" Walter countered, his eyebrow up again. He let slip a small chuckle at Alex's thinly-veiled indignation. "You're slipping, Krycek, if you didn't see me tailing you. I expected better from an ex-FBI agent and retired assassin. Perhaps I should have a word with the instructors at Quantico."

Of all the men in the world with whom Alex could have fallen in love, he had to pick one with a stellar investigative background and a lousy sense of humor.

"They talk about men when they're alone," he informed Walter incredulously. "They make fun of us."

"Indeed," Walter said blandly. "Ever spent time in a men's locker room, Alex? I doubt anything women say could be as crude as the lies swapped in there." He shifted against the car hood. "So that's two. Tailing and eavesdropping. What's the third?"

Damned if he knew.

"I--I hurt Kim's feelings?" he asked, fishing around blindly.

A glimmer of surprise crossed Walter's expression. "Yes, you did, but that's not an offense we agreed on as punishable."

"I know, but...things are different now, and I thought maybe..." Alex was mortified at how uncertain he sounded.

"Alex, let's get a couple of things straight. One, I will never change the rules in this without talking about it with you first. This is something we've decided on, together, and it would be unconscionable of me to do otherwise. We both chose this, long ago. It was a mutual decision, and neither of us has the right to alter the boundaries we set without discussing it with the other first. Correct?"

"Correct," he replied. A gentlemen's agreement, Walter called it. The phrase had an old-fashioned charm that appealed to Alex; the implication that Walter viewed him as a gentleman was a heady prospect.

"Nothing has changed, Alex. Not when it comes to this."

"Okay," he said decisively, as his gut told him what his brain already knew. Walter was a firm believer in rules and boundaries, and Alex was ashamed that, even for a split second, he had forgotten that. The sharp tingle of fear dissipated slowly from his spine. "What's the second point?"

Dark eyes peered at him carefully behind the wirerims. "The second point is that whatever happens between you and Kim is between you two. You two don't know each other well yet, so it's inevitable that feelings will get bruised on occasion, accidentally or on purpose. I'd prefer if you didn't deliberately try to hurt her, but that's not for me to dictate to you. Three people in a relationship is a tricky business, and there's a lot of balancing that has to take place. You can come to me if you have questions, or if you're unsure, just as she does."

"She does? She asks questions about me?" Alex interrupted.

Walter smiled. "Of course. Kim wants very much to make this work, and she cares about you a great deal. But there are times I think she feels intimidated by you, and it's easier for her to come to me and figure out how to reach out to you. For example, this morning. I knew she was asking you on a date, because she wanted my opinion before she did it. If I had known you were going to shoot her down, of course, I would have suggested a different approach, but I think I misjudged your feelings for her. I thought you were beginning to trust her, Alex, or at the minimum, like her even a little. Was I wrong in my assessment?"

"No," Alex mumbled, resisting the urge to kick at the asphalt like a recalcitrant child. "I do like her, Walter. I'm sorry that I scared her, and made her feel uncomfortable."

"I'm not the one you should apologize to for that," the older man said gently. "Just talk to her, Alex. She doesn't bite."

A sly grin slid on and off Alex's face. "Sometimes she does."

Walter laughed unexpectedly. "So do I. You're pretty edible." He coughed. "Back to the matter at hand. What's the third offense?"

Alex caught his eye-roll with seconds to spare. Trust Walter to maintain his damn focus, just when Alex was contemplating bite-able sections of the delectable body before him. Okay, what had he done? Eavesdropped, tailed... he was at a complete loss to come up with a third.

"I physically frightened Kim?"

A headshake. "That was very, very wrong to do, but that wasn't it. Try again." Walter waited until Alex shrugged his shoulders in defeat. "We spoke on the phone twice today, Alex. And you insisted that you were fine, and you were planning on staying home all night. But that wasn't true, was it?"

Instantly ashamed and remorseful, Alex bowed his head, unable to meet Walter's steady gaze. "I lied," he confessed, feeling his face flush at the memory. "I'm so sorry I lied to you, Walter. I knew I was going, but I...I shouldn't have done that."

"I know you're sorry, sweetheart," Walter replied calmly. "But that doesn't change the situation. You broke three rules, things we agreed that you would not do anymore."

"But I didn't mean to," Alex exclaimed, his words speeding up and tripping over themselves as dread overtook relief in his veins. As much as he was grateful that Walter was strict with him and kept him grounded, it was always this moment just before the punishment started that grabbed him by the throat in a panicky grip. "It was Kim's fault, she didn't tell me it was a date!"

That probably sounded as pathetic to Walter as it did to him, he realized belatedly. More justifications and excuses formed on his tongue, but they were silenced by Walter's stony expression. "I...I did it," Alex finally whispered. "It was my fault. I stalked her, and I listened in on something that was none of my business, and I lied. To you. I'm so sorry I did that. All of it."

Walter reached across the cold space between them, and tugged Alex closer. Running his large ungloved hands up the leather sleeves of Alex's jacket, he briefly cupped Alex's face before moving back down and grasping his shoulders. Even in the chilled air of the black and vacant alley, his palms were still warm. Alex had joked once that Walter had enough body warmth to heat up DC in the winter, but he never expected his theory to be proven so soundly.

"I love you, Alex Krycek," Walter said vehemently, his voice low and thick with emotion. "Don't you ever forget that."

Hot tears instantly pricked at the back of Alex's eyeballs. "I lo-...I love you too, Walter," he answered raggedly. "I'm so sorry I lied to you. I never meant to do that."

Walter searched his face, before sighing and loosening his iron grip on Alex's shoulders. "Get in the car, sweetheart."

For one fleeting moment, Alex's powerful survival instinct, which had first flared to life in the crucible of his Consortium years, suddenly re-manifested itself as an intense yearning to shake off the strong hands still resting on him, and run like hell. Alex had to remind himself that to heed that primitive inner voice, to bolt like a cornered animal, was in direct contrast to what he truly needed to survive, in the larger sense of the word. Survival of his soul over survival of his skin, a concept considered laughable in his old world, was the true lesson being taught, patiently and slowly, by Walter's firm hand. The lesson didn't always take, but Alex understood the value behind it.

Alex took a deep breath and willed himself to stand fast, with the one person who loved him enough to correct his skewed vision of intimacy and responsibility. This was right where he needed to be, existing in Walter's hands and his eyes and his heart. Alex would do whatever it took, whatever Walter asked, to have this incredible chance to repair his tattered soul, and be the man that Walter loved. Whether it was accept responsibility for his actions, or allow someone else to enter their lives, or stand on his head if he was asked, Alex would do it.

But deep down, he had just enough self-awareness to recognize that the things Walter asked of him were things that Alex wanted for himself as well. He wanted to be held accountable, to be able to hold his head up high when he looked in the mirror each morning. And he wanted that sweet redheaded girl to accept him, maybe even to look at him the way she looked at Walter someday. He'd rather not have to go through the pain to get to those things, but it was the only avenue that led him to where he needed to be. In the end, Alex's desire to become the person his lover could be proud of, compelled him to submit to Walter's directive.

Walter stopped him when he started to open the passenger door. "The back seat, Alex. We're going to do this here."

Here?

"Aren't we going back to our apartment?" Damn, he sounded like he was twelve, changing voice and all.

Walter hesitated, then nodded his head toward the street. "We could, but I promised Kim I'd pick her up after dinner. Viva Towers is forty-five minutes from here. It's your call. I can tell her to take a cab home later if you want."

Alex automatically glanced around the deserted alley, then into the car window. The damn Bureau was still on the stingy side when it came to assigning vehicles to Assistant Directors, he noted dryly. You'd think they'd rate higher than a freaking Buick. Strangely enough, the car always reminded Alex of the large boats in which he had fooled around with Debbi-with-a-heart way back when. Walter had generously pushed up the passenger seat all the way to the dashboard, folding it in half so it would be roomier, but space in the backseat was still going to be tight, especially after he factored two six-foot-plus men into the equation.

He opened his mouth to argue, then closed it abruptly, mutely accepting the time and location of his punishment. Alex's guilt over frightening Kim weighed heavily in his decision. Walter wouldn't punish him for it, but Alex knew he deserved to be. Accepting an awkward, semi-public spanking gave him the chance to atone for that particular sin. Moreover, the thought of relegating Kim -- who'd done nothing to merit Alex's shabby treatment of her -- to an impersonal taxi driven by God knows who, was unforgivable. She had been through enough tonight.

Walter stood and removed his overcoat, folding it neatly and placing it on the driver's seat. His suit jacket and tie soon joined it. Alex watched, unmoving, as Walter opened the rear door and sat down in the back, behind the driver's seat. After a moment, Alex took one last look around the alley, and joined him in the backseat. It was inconceivable that Walter would do this if he weren't entirely certain they would remain unseen. Alex resolved not to yell, just to be on the safe side.

Many clumsy minutes later, Walter had directed Alex into the best spot. Walter sat behind the driver's seat, facing the front window, and Alex was situated on the rear passenger's side, in complete polar opposition to Walter's position. Alex faced the rear window, and he was kneeling in the well space of the floor. His bent feet pushed against the bottom of the front passenger seat, his thighs pressed firmly into the bottom edge of the backseat, and his shins were caught tight between the two.

His upper torso leaned over the actual backseat, and he held up his weight with both hands firmly placed on the bottom half of the cushion. His prosthetic arm bit acutely into his scarred stump, he had it jammed so tightly into place. His black leather jacket and gloves had joined Walter's tidy stack of clothes in the front seat. Alex kept his sweater on for practicality's sake, and his jeans and boxers were hanging down around his knees. The cold metal of his belt buckle bit into his lower thigh as he shifted his weight around to alleviate some of the pressure on his stump.

The position was incredibly awkward, with his bare ass beginning to get chilled from the cooling air in the car and sticking out embarrassingly in mid-air. His balls scraped once against the cold plastic piping of the cushion, and instantly shriveled into his body, dueling for space with the rest of his genitals, which had also headed inside, seeking a more hospitable clime. Trapped between the unusual, geometrically perfect confinement of the front and back seats, the right side of the car, and Walter, Alex had zero room to flail away from Walter's oncoming hand.

There was nowhere to go, which invited a feeling of overwhelming relief. Alex's life had prepared him well for the feeling of having nowhere to go. But this time was different. Before, it was due to being trapped in an inescapable cycle of terror and death; now it provided a keen sense of comfort. Nowhere to go meant he was safe with Walter.

Once Alex was in place, Walter leaned into the front seat area, and locked all the doors. Rolling up his left shirtsleeve, he shifted to face Alex, wedging his right knee up between Alex's upper torso and the bottom of the backseat. Walter's immeasurable body heat seeped through his pants against Alex's bare hip, and Alex was greatly comforted by the warm sensation of the contact.

As nervous as he was about was coming, Alex couldn't help but thrill at the closeness and intimacy of the position they were in. During most of his punishments, he lay over Walter's knee, their faces far apart. Here, practically cradled between Walter's legs, their bodies touching in a number of spots, Alex could feel the other man's warm breath against his cheek, as he bent his head so his forehead rested against the top of the rear cushion.

Determined not to make any controllable noise that might alert an outsider to what was happening, Alex bit down on his lip to hold back the whimper when Walter's left hand finally touched his quivering ass. Not a slap. A caress. The warmth of that large palm against his rapidly-chilling flesh sent a wave of goose bumps over Alex's body.

"There were three offenses, Alex," Walter said into his ear, his tone hushed yet no less demanding. "Tell me what they were."

"Spying, eavesdropping, and lying," Alex whispered against the fabric of the seat, keeping his head in profile to Walter's. The words alone filled him with shame. If he turned now and looked into those brown eyes he knew were inches from his, and saw the disappointment he knew had to exist in them, what was now merely painful would escalate to pure torture.

"What are the rules we agreed on, Alex?" Walter continued, his hand still stroking Alex's ass. "Why are the first two wrong?"

"B-because it's what I used to do, when I was bad. They're illegal, and dangerous, and wrong."

"You're not bad, sweetheart. But those actions could get you in serious trouble or injured if you got caught," Walter reminded him.

Alex nodded against the cushion, swallowing erratically as he tried, and failed, to keep his breathing pattern regular. Out of the corner of his eye, he noted the windows steaming up from the heat of their intertwined bodies inside the car. "Yes. Doing something illegal could get me arrested. Or imprisoned."

"Or killed," Walter added, the note of anguish in his voice echoing keenly in Alex's heart. Knowing that his foolish behavior had the capacity to wound his lover tormented Alex more than any physical discipline ever could. "What if it hadn't been me who caught you, sweetheart? What if it had been someone looking to cause you harm?"

Tears pricked behind his eyes again, as Alex finally began to see the potentially horrific consequences of what he had done. "I'm so sorry, Walter. I was so wrong, to put myself in danger and worry you like that. I promise I'll never do it again."

"Good, Alex," Walter continued, his voice dark and loving and so, so close. "Never take risks like that again. Your life is worth so much more than that. You're so important to me, sweetheart. I couldn't live without you. You know that, don't you?"

"Y-yes. M'sorry, Walter," Alex managed to squeeze out around the thick ball lodged in his throat. The tears weren't coming yet; they never did. But to know this, to hear Walter tell him that he was cherished and needed, at the precise moment that he was raw and exposed and on the brink of pain, made something crack deep inside his soul.

It was at this moment, suspended in time, that he always felt the safest, and the most loved. To know that absolution was a heartbeat away. That no matter what terrible things he had done, things he knew were wrong and bad and hurtful, Walter would make him face up to them and love him and forgive him.

"Lying, Alex," Walter's steady voice pulled him back from the abyss. "Tell me why lying is wrong."

"B-because it breaks the trust between us. It makes you hate me, and distrust me and then you might send me away."

"No, sweetheart," Walter said forcefully. "I'll never hate you, and I'll never send you away. Never, Alex. But lying does break the trust; it puts a barrier between us, and that hurts us both."

"M'so sorry for lying and hurting you," Alex choked out, comforted by the conviction in Walter's tone. "I was thoughtless and wrong and I don't want you to mistrust me. I won't lie again. I p-promise."

A large hand covered his real one at that moment, the heat from the palm enveloping the back of his hand. Strong fingers curled around Alex's palm, and he grabbed onto them for dear life. Soothing breath warmed his earlobe.

"I love you, Alex," Walter whispered thickly, then moved his head fractionally away. Whether the passionate reminder was for Alex's benefit or his own, Alex couldn't tell. Perhaps for them both.

WHACK!

The first smack against his unsuspecting flesh jolted Alex, ripping the moan out of his mouth, and he bit into the seat cushion to muffle it. He managed not to make a sound.

WHACK! WHACK!

Eyes screwed shut to prevent the tears from falling too soon, the still-working practical side of Alex's brain informed him that with the limited space available, Walter wasn't able to get much momentum in his swing. But his already sweltering ass couldn't tell the difference; it throbbed and yearned for freedom.

WHACK! WHACK!

Blood rushed from his head to his ass, which was burning from the well-placed swats. The pain began to spread, from his crammed-in toes to his pinched shins to his freezing balls to his churning stomach to his pounding heart to his raw throat to his lip clamped tightly between his teeth. Walter stayed whisper close to him, one hand covering Alex's comfortingly, the other driving into his exposed ass with excruciating precision and force. Walter may not have momentum, but he had hours in the gym to build up his powerful muscles, the last of Alex's functioning brain cells conceded.

WHACK! WHACK!

The aches and pains of the rest of his body also conceded defeat, as every nerve ending suddenly relocated to his backside, pooling their energy into one concentrated section. His bare skin heated and tingled from the relentless strokes, then the tingling became stinging. His entire focus was soon on his red, swollen butt, his awkward position forgotten, the rest of the world left behind. Alex surfed the waves of pain, sliding off one curl as it crested and jumping onto the next; he sure-footedly sought, and found, the mindless head space he knew from experience existed, where he could feel free enough to speak the truth. His mouth fell open, words and cries and confessions rushing down to his tongue, but no sound emerged from his parted lips. Ready to talk, he suddenly realized he couldn't.

Something was wrong. He felt wrong.

WHACK! WHACK! WHACK!

Walter's voice cut through his confused panic. "Tell me, Alex. Tell me why it was wrong."

Alex worked his jaw, his uneven breaths the only noise escaping from his gaping mouth.

WHACK! WHACK! WHACK!

The sound of hand meeting raw, red flesh reverberated throughout the car, filling Alex's ears in an endless melody not joined by any other sound except his ragged breathing. The discordant harmony of sobs and smacks, the familiar sound of his voice interspersed with fleshy slaps, didn't ring into the night as expected, and it shook Alex to his core.

Forcing his eyes open, he saw only the fogged-up windows. A jagged spike of loss stabbed his gut. What had he been expecting to see? There was only Alex, and Walter, and Walter's hands. One to soothe, and one to ignite.

What was missing? What more did he want?

"Tell me, Alex," Walter ordered. But he couldn't. He couldn't talk, he couldn't cry. He couldn't do anything but wait for the next blow to land.

He didn't have long to wait.

WHACK! WHACK! WHACK!

Walter kept up a steady pattern of swats, peppering his cheeks, his upper thighs, shifting closer to reach his neglected left side until it burned even hotter than his right.

Alex looked at the steamy window again, saw only the grayish hue of heat meeting dark, and another spike of loss jabbed at his wavering consciousness. Where was the red flame? The moist blue?

WHACK! WHACK! WHACK!

Kim. He was looking for Kim.

WHACK! WHACK! WHACK!

Kim, standing in the corner, her small clasped hands pressed against her heart. Watching him steadily with sad blue eyes. Not turning away when he reached his lowest ebb.

Accepting him.

He was looking for her, needing her to be here.

"Damn it, Alex, talk!" Walter hissed. "Say something!"

WHACK! WHACK! WHACK!

The hard, insistent smacks rained down, yet suddenly the conflicted agony in his heart drowned out the blistering ache of his ass.

Kim wasn't here, and Walter was. It was just he and Walter again, like it used to be.

And, for the first time, it wasn't enough.

WHACK!

Alex shattered.

The dam inside him broke, pouring out secrets and sins and terrible, horrible truths. Stealing money for candy from his great-aunt's purse. Beating up Joe Wilson, the class bully, on the playground. Cheating on a history test.

The list went on, the crimes becoming more serious. "I...I hotwired my-my great-aunt's c-car, and...lied about crashing it...I broke into my p-professor's office, and stole a final exam...s-sold it to my classmates...I t-took the money Spender offered me...t-to...t-to spy on...M-Mulder and y-you...m'so sorry, Walter...please..." Alex moaned, his hot, shamed tears freely running down his face.

There was more. So much more. Each one worse than the last. Killing Augustus Cole. The tram operator. Duane Barry. Aiding in Scully's kidnapping. Murdering Bill Mulder in his bathroom. Witnessing the shooting of innocent Melissa Scully. Not stopping Cardinale from slaughtering her like the sacrificial lamb she was. Beating up Walter in a stairwell. Abandoning Mulder in a Russian gulag.

And, finally, his most recent betrayals. "I stalked Kim...so sorry...I s-spied on h-her...I l-lied...t-to you...please...m'so sorry! S-so, so sorry..." he choked.

All of it. Over and over and over, Alex sobbed and pleaded and begged. His taut muscles, locking his position into place for too long, turned to jelly. He sagged against Walter's shoulder, his entire body going limp, feeling nothing but the biting burn of his raw skin.

So lost in his haze of sorrow and pain, Alex was unaware that the spanking had ceased. He melted into the arms wrapping around him, tipping toward Walter eagerly, his body and brain drained and aching. Vaguely, he felt a muscular arm hold him steady around his back as a firm hand disengaged his nerveless legs from the floor well. He buried his face in Walter's neck, crying helplessly, as his lover slowly, carefully, lifted his limp body, twisting him until he rested, face down, across Walter's chest, cradled fully between spread-apart legs. Strong arms folded around him, and held.

His red-hot ass twitched and burned, the pain shooting little sparks into the numb nerve endings of the rest of his body, jolting them back to life. Swimming in a miasma of hurt and regret, Alex could only cry and beg forgiveness.

"M'so sorry, so sorry...please...forgive me...m'sorry, m'sorry...love me...so sorry for everything..." he gasped, great gulps of air healing his ravaged lungs.

"Ssssh, it's okay, sweetheart," Walter whispered, stroking Alex's back, wiping the thin film of sweat from his brow. "I'm right here. It's okay, just let it out."

"H-hurts...I hurt," he hiccupped. "I hurt you and I hurt K-Kim and I hurt myself."

"I know it hurts. I'm right here. It's over, Alex. It's over, and you're forgiven. I love you."

Alex continued crying, his tears drenching Walter's collar, letting the fiery sensation of his reddened bottom center him again. He floated for a long time on the endorphins, gradually sinking into the comfort of Walter's embrace.

"I'm so sorry, Walter. I was bad and I broke the rules and I promise I won't do it again," he murmured. "I love you so much. Please don't hate me."

"No, Alex, I could never hate you. Never. I hate what you did, because you put yourself in danger, but I don't hate you. I love you, sweetheart."

Relief swept through him, leaving him sated in the aftermath. His sobs eventually died down, while Walter continued caressing and soothing him, listening to Alex's promises to obey the rules. To never lie to him again. Woven tenderly between each slowing tear, a deep, gentle voice echoed over and over the two things Alex needed to hear the most. He was loved, and he was forgiven.

"So," Walter said once Alex had quieted back down, a trace of humor in his tone, "you stole money to buy candy?"

"Yeah. Did I really say that?" Alex sniffled against the solid chest. When he hit the juncture where physical pain met emotional torment, what often emerged was pure stream of consciousness.

He could hear the muted smile in Walter's response. "Sure did. Someday I think you're actually going to tell me where Jimmy Hoffa's buried."

Alex snorted a laugh, nestling deeper into Walter's arms. "If I did know, I'm sure I would have told you by now. I can't keep anything from you, at least not for long."

A large hand tenderly brushed his sore butt, the fingertips cool enough to quench some of the hotter spots. "You scared the hell out of me, Alex," Walter whispered. "What happened to you during the spanking? Why couldn't you speak?"

Alex hesitated, the mental image of Kim clenching his stomach. He felt awful for thinking of someone else at that moment. Look at all Walter had done for him. To say that he wasn't enough was a betrayal of the worst kind. But it wasn't worse than lying. And he had just promised not to lie. He shifted against Walter's chest, letting his blistered ass make the decision for him.

"This...this was the first time you've disciplined me alone since Kim came," he said cautiously. "I thought that was what I wanted, but...it felt different without her here. Like something was..."

"Missing?" Walter supplied.

Alex burrowed his head deeper, listening to Walter's strong, steady heartbeat pound against his ear. He was unable to look up and see the hurt that must be in those warm brown eyes. He knew intimately how it felt to come up short, that he wasn't enough to make someone content. "M'sorry, Walter. I do love you, so much, and I..."

Walter stroked his hair, kissing the roots softly. "I'm proud of you, Alex. Admitting you need someone is the hardest thing to say, isn't it?"

"I don't need Kim," he said quickly. "It just felt different, that's all."

A soft smack on his tender butt elicited a startled yelp.

"Didn't we just talk about what kind of trouble comes from lying?" Walter said darkly.

Alex swallowed. "Sorry. I didn't want to make you think it changes the way I feel about you."

The broad chest under him rumbled in a short laugh. "Alex, what do you think I've been trying to explain to you for months?" Walter tilted his chin so they were eye to eye. "That's the way I feel about both of you. My loving Kim doesn't change one iota of the love I have for you."

Oh.

Maybe he was a little stoned from the endorphins, but that almost made sense to Alex.

"So...so it's okay to want her here sometimes? To n-need both of you?" he asked, still unsure.

A smile spread across Walter's face. "It's more than okay, sweetheart. It's what I've been hoping would happen for a long time." He stroked the furrow that appeared between Alex's eyebrows. "I think, if you give her a chance, Kim will make you very happy. You've got an enormous heart, Alex, and if you let both Kim and I in, you might be surprised at how good the two of us can make you feel."

"You make me happy, Walter," Alex murmured, preferring to bask in the security and comfort of Walter's embrace, rather than open up this can of worms. He may have wanted Kim there during the discipline, but not now. Now he only wanted Walter.

A quick glance at the still-fogged windows bolstered Alex's courage, and he stole a brief kiss from the curved lips inches from his, as he'd longed to do since entering the alley. To his delighted surprise, the back of his head was grabbed as soon as he began to pull away, and was held in place as Walter's lips parted against his. For long, pleasurable minutes, Alex explored the warm depths of a mouth he knew as well as his own.

They lay there, sprawled awkwardly in the now cool car, kissing and whispering, until the chill in the air sent a fresh wave of goose bumps along Alex's bare ass, and he shivered involuntarily. With a small groan, Walter shifted up from his semi-reclined position against the side window until they were both vertical again, gently assisting Alex so he was resting uncomfortably on his tender butt.

Peering at Alex's face in the dark, Walter frowned, "I think I might have overlooked a minor detail in doing this here. I can drive you home, if you're not up to having dinner."

"Why wouldn't I be? Sitting might be tricky, but honestly, Walter, I...I would like to apologize to Kim." He noted Walter's worried expression, and instinctively wiped his damp face, then dragged his fingers through his hair. "Ah. So, uh, how bad do I look?" he asked, slightly embarrassed at his own vanity.

Walter chuckled, tugging on his wet shirt collar. "No worse than I do, I imagine." He snapped his fingers. "Hang on. I think there might be some things in the trunk to help both of us clean up properly."

As Walter grabbed his overcoat and stepped out of the car to rummage through the trunk, Alex leaned up on his shoulders and gingerly tugged his boxers and pants back over his hips, re-dressing quickly. Using the slim streaks of light emanating from around the lifted trunk hood as a guide, he sat forward to glance at his reflection in the rear-view mirror. His face was puffy, but not nearly as bad as Walter's concern had suggested. The whites of his eyes were another story; they were as red as he assumed his ass was. After a few minutes, Walter returned with a clean work shirt for himself, and two bottles for Alex. "Kim left her gym bag in the trunk. Maybe these will help."

Alex took the Visine and the other bottle from Walter's outstretched hand, vowing never again to complain about Kim's excessive toiletries. He used the Visine first, since he didn't need instructions on that. Checking the label of the other bottle under the open door light, he read: Skin Kreme with vitamin K. Apparently it reduced signs of bruising, spider veins, rosacea and blotchiness. No clue what rosacea was, but blotchiness fit his current description. Rubbing the cream on his face, he laughed as the scent filled his nose. Walter shot him a puzzled look while he slipped his tie under his new shirt's collar.

"What?"

"Whatever this stuff is, she uses it a lot. Smells like peaches."

Walter joined in on his laughter. "Mmmm...so now you smell like Kim? That's actually pretty sexy."

Alex resisted the impulse to flip him off good-naturedly, instead planting a quick kiss on the warm space between the cotton collar and Walter's earlobe. Between the Kim/peach smell, the cuddling, and watching Walter's boss armor fall back into place, Alex's frozen genitals were beginning to come out of hibernation. "Not half as sexy as you look in that suit. As soon as we get home, that sucker's coming off. And I know just the girl to help me with that task," he grinned as he stepped out of the car and into the alley, stretching his legs gratefully as they both finished getting ready to re-join the rest of the world.

One quick semi-surreptitious glance in the side rearview mirror, which earned Alex a hair ruffle and a deep bark of laughter, and the two men headed back out onto the street. Alex turned and glanced at the alley once they had reached the sidewalk; it no longer seemed as ominous as it had when he arrived. Much of that was due to the change in Walter's demeanor, of course; but Alex knew that his own change in temper played into that, too. Both of them were far more relaxed and jovial than seemed possible, given what had transpired in the Buick. Alex wasn't complaining; he hadn't felt this at ease in weeks.

That ease waned significantly as they approached the restaurant. Over Walter's shoulder, Alex spotted a familiar red head standing under a streetlamp, and his stomach did a short flip-flop as they got closer. Kim didn't see them immediately, since she faced the street, a visible stream of breath flowing quickly out of her mouth. Her left arm was wrapped around her chest tightly, and her right dangled perpendicular to her body, holding something narrow and white between her fingers. Alex was stunned to see it was a cigarette, which she quickly dropped and ground out under her heel as Walter got close enough to catch her attention. Alex deliberately hung back, avoiding her gaze.

"Sorry." She gave a wan smile to Walter, who waggled his finger admonishingly at her. Apparently the fact that Kim smoked on the sly wasn't news to him. "I, ah, didn't expect you this soon."

Walter leaned down and kissed her cheek. "Thought we'd come join you for dinner, if you haven't already finished eating."

"We?" she repeated, her glance sliding away from the man in front of her, and catching sight of Alex lurking in the background. The delighted smile that spread across her face couldn't be for him, he reasoned. Maybe she was drunk.

"Oh, no, we just got seated, finally. I'll go tell the hostess to add two more chairs," Kim continued, starting to walk toward the entrance. She stopped, turning and facing Alex directly. "I'm really glad you changed your mind, Alex. Thank you."

Her blatant sincerity propelled him to action. Better to tell her the truth while she still had positive feelings for him; it might buy him the wiggle room he hadn't had with Walter. "You're welcome. Walter, could you go in and make the arrangements? I'd like to talk to Kim for a minute first."

Ever the diplomat, Walter gave Alex a short nod of comprehension, then squeezed Kim's shoulder lightly. "Don't worry, hon. I've seen pictures of Melanie, so I'll know which one she is. And I'm perfectly capable of introducing myself." The two of them shared a meaning-laden smile, then Walter entered the restaurant.

Once they were alone on the sidewalk, Alex eyed Kim worriedly. She had said she was happy to see him, but her tense body language belied her easy tone of voice. Arms firmly crossed in front of her chest, she trembled once as she looked up at him curiously.

"What did you want to talk to me about, A-Alex?" she asked, her lips shivering as she pulled the sleeves of her sweater down over her hands. The gesture finally clued him into the fact she wasn't wearing her coat. She was cold, he realized with an inward sigh of relief. Not mad.

Quickly, he slid his jacket off his shoulders, and wrapped it around hers. As she slid her arms into the sleeves, smiling gratefully at him, he couldn't help but notice how the leather dwarfed her body, making her appear even smaller than she was. The mental picture Walter had drawn earlier combined with the actual one Alex had viewed as he had followed her, and his guilt returned ten-fold. On the Metro, she hadn't seemed at all afraid, but suddenly Alex understood that her brave front was as false as his had been, in the alley. Maybe they had more in common than he realized.

"Alex?" she prompted. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah," he answered, his gaze darting from her concerned face to the cigarette smashed on the ground. "I...I didn't know you smoked."

Way to get right to the point, Rico Suave.

Kim gave a guilty little giggle. "I don't, not really. It's, ah, it's been a rough night." She cleared her throat. "A tense trip here, a couple of cocktails, some annoying pests inside, Melanie giving me the third degree...it all added up. You're not going give me grief about it, too, are you? Walter nags me enough when he busts me."

"No, I'll leave you alone. I've been on the receiving end of Walter's lectures enough times to know you don't need my two cents on the dangers of smoking. Between AD Skinner and the Surgeon General, I'm sure you've gotten the message."

They both laughed. Discussing Walter was familiar territory for them, an undeclared safe area of conversation. Alex knew Walter was right earlier, when he suggested that Alex simply talk to Kim. Putting that into action, however, was much harder than it should be. He stared at the crushed cigarette again, his mind's eye seeing a leathery, cold face that had launched a thousand nightmares. For God's sake, what was he so afraid of? He had faced down Old Smokey himself; a slip of a girl like Kim should be no problem whatsoever.

"Aren't you nervous about being out here alone?" he ventured. Closer to what he wanted to say, but still not it. He'd get there, eventually.

Kim shrugged underneath the oversized jacket. "Why would I be? You're here."

On a scale of one to ten on the guilt spectrum, that innocent comment landed Alex at about eleven.

"Besides," she continued sweetly, "Walter always tells me that it's good to face my fears. Did he tell you how I over-reacted tonight?" Alex nodded, but she plowed ahead before he could respond verbally. "I'm sure it was nothing, I was probably just being paranoid--"

"Kim," he interrupted, the still-tingling heat in his ass at last prompting him to face his own fears, "it wasn't nothing. It was me. I...I was following you. I tailed you from work to here, and...and then I sat where you couldn't see me, and I eavesdropped on your conversation. I'm very sorry that you were frightened, I didn't mean for that to happen."

"You?" she asked, the surprise widening her eyes. He watched as she struggled to understand what he was saying. "But...I don't...why did you do that? Why didn't you just..."

"I don't know why. I guess...I didn't understand why you wanted me to come with you tonight. But I did want to come, Kim. I just fuc-, I messed up. I'm sorry."

She closed her eyes, tilting her chin into the lapel of the jacket. "I tried to convince myself I wasn't afraid of the dark, but...you really scared me, Alex," she muttered under her breath. Alex looked the spill of red hair against the black leather, and had a sudden urge to pull her into his embrace, to soothe her fears as Walter did for him. Since he was the source of those fears, it didn't seem like the right approach. Speech was the only resource he had.

"I'm so sorry I did that to you, Kim. I wasn't thinking. But I didn't understand, and then I didn't know where you were going for dinner, so I figured I'd just let you lead me there. Harming you was the last thing on my mind. I would never, ever hurt you..." his voice cracked suddenly, but Alex was determined to finish what he'd started. "I just wouldn't, sweetheart. I know you don't believe me, but I swear I--"

Two small hands suddenly shot out toward Alex's midsection and grabbed fistfuls of his sweater. "Just shut up for a second," Kim hissed, and Alex immediately complied. Looking down at her balled-up hands, frozen against his torso, he couldn't determine if she was planning on gut-punching him or shoving him to the ground. He braced his body for both forms of attack, tightening his stomach muscles and locking his knees into place.

But she didn't do either of those things. She didn't do anything he expected, but on the other hand, she rarely did. What threw off Alex's equilibrium, what drove him crazy and intrigued him relentlessly, was the way Kim Cook never reacted the way he assumed she would. She hadn't flinched the first time he had removed his prosthetic in front of her, she'd spanked him once when he knew she hated it, she stayed and watched him get disciplined when every nuance of her body language screamed, 'don't make me see this', and then, as the latest inexplicable mystery, she'd asked him on a date.

Given all of this, it shouldn't have shocked him as badly as it did when she finally made her move. But it did. Still gripping his sweater in her hands, she leaned forward, lightly thumping her forehead once against his breastbone, then rested her head softly against his chest. Caught completely unprepared, Alex didn't know how to react. Why was she so close to him? Why was she touching him? Did she want him to touch her in response? After telling her what he'd done, did she actually want him to...hug her?

Her voice was muffled, so Alex had to tilt his head down toward hers to catch what she was saying. The tangled scent of peaches and smoke tickled his nose enticingly.

"Sometimes I think I'm never going to understand you," she muttered. "You confuse the hell out of me."

The laugh burst out of him before he could stop it. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. Kim tilted her head up to look at him, her eyes bright and glittering.

"I'm serious, Alex. I mean, you act so cold and aloof toward me, and I start to think that it's hopeless and you're never going to..." she sighed and leaned her forehead on his chest again, "and then all of a sudden, you do or say the sweetest things. I just don't get it."

"Kim..." Alex paused, still trying to figure out where to put his hands. Keeping them by his sides didn't seemed like a sweet thing to do, and he liked the idea that Kim thought, even erroneously, that he was sweet. But touching her with his artificial arm was a disturbing notion; he already spent too much time figuring out ways to limit her exposure to it. Finally he brought his real hand to her chin, tilting her face back up in his direction, grateful his ungloved fingers were still warm enough to touch her without making her flinch from the contact.

"You confuse me, too, Kim. I'm sorry if that comes across as coldness...that's not my intention. There are times that I feel thrown off-balance by you, and...I just don't know what to say. So I don't say anything, or I say the wrong thing. Like this morning. I didn't realize that it was a date, I thought you were just being polite, to appease Walter or something."

"Is it really that outrageous to believe I might want to spend time with you, Alex?" she asked.

"Yeah, it is. I'm not an easy person to be around. I have a short temper, and I'm moody, and...and I act like such a jerk to you, I can't understand why you and Walter put up with me--"

"Don't sell yourself short, pal," Kim interrupted. "I think there's plenty of wonderful things about you. Strange and confusing things, but sweet and wonderful nonetheless." At his eye-roll, she said fiercely, "I mean it. Who else would lend me their jacket in the same breath that they tell me they tailed me all evening? Who else would call me sweetheart while trying to convince me they weren't going to hurt me? My God, Alex, you're even wearing the sweater I gave you. You've...you've never worn it before tonight. I figured you didn't like it."

Alex watched as she loosened her death grip on the black wool, keeping her hands against the fabric, not quite pressing hard enough to reach his skin underneath, but not drawing away, either. He didn't recall purposely selecting this particular sweater, but he remembered ripping the tags off vividly, and wondering why he hadn't worn it before. "I like it fine, Kim," he said, his voice a shade huskier than usual. "I wish I could take credit for doing any of that, but honestly, I didn't even realize I'd picked this sweater, or that I'd called you that. Maybe I should let my subconscious do all the work when we're together, since it apparently knows what it's doing better than I do."

"Maybe you should," she agreed, smiling faintly. She gave the sweater a brief glance, fingering the ribbed wool delicately. "This looks very nice on you, by the way. It took me forever to decide between this and another one, but seeing it on you now, I think I made the right choice. You look great in a turtleneck. Very dashing."

"Thanks," he said, feeling his face flush. He wasn't sure what embarrassed him more, that she thought he looked dashing, or the image of her rifling through the store, purposely trying to find him the best gift. Like the idiot he was, he hadn't put any effort into her present. The most he'd done was relent and allow Walter to add his name to a card on one box, and that was only after he'd seen the tag with his name tidily written in her handwriting. Looking back, Alex began to see how many times he'd misread her genuine desire to reach out to him, and what an utter clod he'd been in response. "I promise I'll work on not being so cruel to you from now on. I'm really sorry about everything. I was so stupid tonight, Kim. I didn't think for a second that I was scaring you, or believe me, I wouldn't have done it. I swear, I wouldn't ever--"

"Alex, you don't have to reassure me about that. Let me explain something, okay?" He nodded for her to continue. "I got spooked because I didn't know who was following me. I thought it was a stranger, or some psycho roaming the streets. Now that I know it was you, I'm not scared, I'm relieved. Admittedly, I'm also a little mad that you did it, but I'm not frightened. I know you wouldn't hurt me. You're just not capable of it."

"How...how can you be so sure? You don't really know me," he argued. The conviction in her voice was alternately moving and unsettling. He hadn't done one thing to deserve the benefit of the doubt that she was granting him.

"No, I don't know all of you yet," she said softly. "But I know enough. Alex, when you get, ah, hot-butted," Kim dropped her voice to a whisper, glancing around furtively to make sure they were alone, "you say a lot of things, stuff that you've done and that you regret. Abusing or terrorizing someone weaker than you isn't among those regrets. And your remorse over Scully's sister...it's the one thing that you always cry hardest over. At first, it was really hard for me to hear all that, and I thought about telling you I couldn't stay as you had asked me, but now I'm glad I do. Being there helps me understand you in a way I think very few people do. I don't know if that's what you intended when you asked me to stay, but it's the main result. The person who did all those things, I thought I knew him, and yes, that Alex terrified me. But I was wrong about you, Alex, and I'm sorry for that. What I've learned is that this one," she paused to pat his chest gently, "the one who cries so genuinely over his actions, who puts himself through hell to atone for things long past, he's the one I know is the real you. That other one, he's just not who you are anymore, and honestly, I don't know if you ever were that Alex. But he's not my lover. You are. And I'm not afraid of my lover."

Alex was rendered completely speechless.

"Besides," she said more firmly, "if those facts weren't enough to convince me, then all I have to do is look at the rules."

"The rules?" he repeated, still absorbing her previous statements. Kim listened to what he said during his punishments? She stayed because she wanted to, not because she was fulfilling an obligation?

"Yes, the rules that you and Walter have. He, ah, when he first told me about your agreement, he explained to me all the rules. He said they were to help you recognize the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior."

Alex nodded. "Most of them exist because they're things I used to do, before. I knew they were wrong, even then, but sometimes it's too easy to fall back into bad habits."

"Exactly. And here's the thing: harming a woman, either physically or mentally, isn't in the rules. So that either implies, that one, you hadn't done it before, or two, you didn't need a reminder that it was unacceptable. You already knew it. That's why I'm not afraid of you, Alex. Even if you don't care for me, it's simply not in you to be purposely cruel to me. I may not understand you as well as I'd like, but that much I'm certain of."

In that instant, Alex began to understand what Walter had meant when he said that if he let Kim into his heart, she and Walter could make him feel better than he'd ever dreamed. Between her steady gaze, her gentle touch, and her serious voice, Kim was telling him, in every way she knew how, that she trusted him. No one, outside of Walter Skinner, had ever said that to Alex in his life.

"Thank you," he said simply. "But you're wrong about one thing."

Her eyebrows furrowed. "What's that?"

"I do care about you, sweetheart. I'm just not good at expressing that. I'm sorry."

When her eyes filled with tears, Alex had to bite down on his rising panic. Had he messed up again? What had he said wrong this time?

"See," she said thickly, "that's what I'm talking about. Being sweet when I don't expect it, a-and..." she trailed off, clearing her throat and shifting her gaze downwards. "I care about you too, Alex," she whispered.

The last of Alex's trepidations were overwhelmed by the rest of the more powerful emotions simmering through his veins. He didn't worry about his arm, or being in public, or anything at all; the only thing that mattered was that he wanted to hold her. He drew her gently toward him, wrapping his good arm over her shoulder, and placing his plastic hand against the small of her back. When she slid her arms around his waist, and burrowed her head into his chest, Alex knew for the first time what it must feel like to be Walter. Not only as the Walter who provided comfort, but also the Walter who lived with the security and joy of knowing that two people treasured him. The sensation was indescribably...sweet.

They stood like that for countless minutes, Kim's bright hair soft against Alex's down-turned cheek, until her small body rippled against his, a quiet giggle emanating from under the folds of the leather jacket.

"What's so funny?" he asked, tipping his head back up, and hoping she hadn't finally caught the peach scent on his face.

"I just peeked over at the restaurant window. Look at the table at the far left. The short brunette next to Walter is Melanie."

Alex turned his head, and immediately caught the ear-splitting grin on Walter's face, watching the two of them spooning on the sidewalk. His green eyes smiled at the brown ones hidden behind the wirerims, then tracked downward to the petite woman sitting beside Walter. The look on her face was a fifty-fifty split between envy and admiration, as her gaze flitted from Alex, to Kim, to her table companion, then resting finally back on Kim.

<Both?> she mouthed to Kim, who nodded against Alex's chest. Melanie shook her head in disbelief and laughed, before turning her attention back to Walter, mockingly slapping his arm as he grinned at her.

"Maybe we should go join them," Alex suggested.

"In a minute," Kim replied, picking her head from its resting place and stepping away from him slightly. "We still have to talk about how you're going to make it up to me. You did still scare me, even if you didn't mean to, you know. And we didn't talk about the eavesdropping."

Jesus. D,jr vu all over again. Same firmness of voice, same shiver of emptiness, same instantaneous relief/dread stomach churn. The ache of his sore butt, which had been relatively quiet since leaving the alley, suddenly flamed back to life, as Alex shifted uncomfortably, shoving his good hand into his jeans pocket.

Kim had told him, after the tree-pushing incident, that she had given it a lot of thought, and that she wouldn't ever spank him again. She'd said, very definitively in fact, that while she would still stay in the room as long as he wanted her to, she wasn't going to be any more involved than that. Alex had been surprised at the time at his own grudging feelings about her decision. Part of him was relieved; it hadn't been her spanking as much as her willingness to do it that had reduced him to tears. She had barely made his butt tingle, and he'd completely broken down. His exposed weakness had bothered him immensely after it was over; he hadn't been able to look her in the eye for days. But another, larger, part of him was acutely disappointed by her unwillingness to discipline him; until tonight in the alley, he hadn't realized how deeply she had become ingrained into what was supposed to be only between him and Walter. Whether she liked it or not, Kim had become a vital part of their gentlemen's agreement. However, Alex didn't think it wise to inform her of that. He wasn't a complete idiot.

But, if she wasn't going to spank him, then how was she planning on punishing him? Please God, not lines. He loathed writing lines.

"I've already been hot-butted tonight," he said as quietly as possible. Unfortunately, what came out was perilously close to a whine. "I think I learned my lesson about spying and eavesdropping."

Kim's mouth twisted halfway between a smile and a frown. "I figured as much. Your eyes are still kind of red. I'm sorry if that was my fault." She reached a hand up to stroke his cheek comfortingly. "But Walter didn't, ah, you know, for spooking me, did he? Or for being so rude when you turned down my offer of a date?"

"No. I broke some rules, which had nothing to do with you. He was very clear about leaving you out of it. He said that my hurting your feelings was between us, and I should apologize to you directly. Which I did," he finished earnestly, the image of pages and pages of a legal pad, filled with his scrawling handwriting, flipping through his mind. "I'm very sorry, sweetheart."

"It's okay. I know it wasn't intentional, Alex," she said gravely, at the same time as her smile began to widen. "But aren't you even a tiny bit curious to know what I think you should do to make it up to me?"

It slowly dawned on Alex that she was teasing him. Her eyes were beginning to twinkle, as if she was holding back a laugh at some inside joke that she wasn't letting him in on, and a clear note of humor had crept into her tone.

"Sure," he said, getting into the lighthearted moment with her. "What's my punishment?"

Kim waited a dramatic beat before answering.

"Flowers."

If she'd asked him to don a tutu and dance on the surface of the sun, Alex couldn't have been more flabbergasted. On the verge of laughing, he stopped when he realized she meant it.

He had a profound urge for a thimbleful of vodka.

"Flowers?" he queried, hoping mere repetition would help him decode what the word 'flowers' meant in secret girl-language. Did she mean she wanted him to buy her flowers? Grow her a garden? Wear flowered boxers? What the hell did flowers mean?

She openly giggled at his lost expression. "Yeah, flowers. Usually, when a man screws up, he buys flowers for the woman. Or candy, or jewelry if he really blew it, or he takes her to a really nice restaurant." Kim erupted into a full-body shake of laughter. "You should ask Walter his florist's name. For a while there, I think he had a standing weekly order for breaking dates with me."

"He did?" Alex was astonished. Walter had screwed up? With Kim?

"Of course he did. He'd get a call from Mulder, and off he'd go, leaving me waiting in front of the theater, or sitting at the table just as our meals arrived. I actually didn't mind those times, because work is work, but he sent such gorgeous bouquets, I didn't say anything. Besides, there were plenty of other times those flowers were the only thing that saved his keister from the doghouse."

The image of Walter Skinner on the phone, frantically placing his order with FTD, make Alex laugh aloud. Having just faced down a disappointed pair of blue eyes himself, Alex could empathize with the big man.

"I...I could do flowers," he said gently, then decided to go for broke. It had been a long, long time since he'd asked this question, but the warm smile on Kim's face made him much more confident than he'd been at fourteen. "Or maybe you'd like to go to the movies with me? Not because I think spending time with you is punishment," he added hastily as the light began to fade from her face. "I meant...I meant that I'd like to ask you out on a date."

See, that wasn't so hard to say, he admonished himself, once he'd recovered from his initial fumble. Not bad for an ex-assassin with a sore ass. Even the Fonz would be impressed.

Kim's smile shone even brighter than it had when she first spotted him behind Walter. "I'd love to, Alex. There's this French film I've been dying to see playing at the art house theater. It's supposed to be really good."

"French?" he bemoaned, only half-joking. "Oh, jeez, subtitles? What about that new Tom Clancy adaptation? I'd rather see that."

Kim cocked her eyebrow, a perfect imitation of Walter just before he lowered the boom. For a brief second, Alex was, once again, a little scared of her. All five-foot-nothing, one hundred-nothing pounds of indignant redheaded female, buried under an avalanche of leather, standing ramrod straight, hands peeking out of too-long sleeves to rest on her hips. The twinkle in her eye, however, destroyed her mini-Walter stance. Plus she just looked so damned cute.

"Alex, when someone is sucking up, that someone does not get a say in what movie they have to watch," she said haughtily.

"How about a Russian film then, instead of French," he negotiated. "I speak Russian." Hell, he didn't care what movie they saw; the appealing prospect of a smiling Kim nestled against him in a darkened movie theater was worth six solid hours of chick flicks.

Her pseudo tough guy persona dissolved in another full-body laugh. "Yeah, I've heard you once or twice," she managed to get out between giggles. "I was going to ask you someday what some of that stuff meant."

Alex had the good grace to blush at her veiled comment. They may be getting along now, but he was not remotely prepared to tell her what he called her and Walter in bed. Not yet, at any rate.

"Fine, fine, French it is," he said lightly, tugging on the open gap of the jacket to head her toward the restaurant. Changing the subject seemed like a smart move. Besides, he was getting cold, and it wouldn't be chivalrous, or sweet, to ask for his coat back. "Let's go in so I can meet your friend."

Walter and Melanie were deep in conversation when the two of them made their way to the table. Walter stood, gracefully helping Kim out of the coat, and cast a quick glance at her glowing face before clapping his hand lightly on Alex's shoulder. 'Good for you', was the unspoken message relayed in the friendly gesture. Or 'I told you so'; either one was appropriate for the situation.

Kim waved a hand from Alex to Melanie. "Melanie, I'd like you to meet Alex," she said, and even he couldn't mistake the pride in her voice. He leaned across the table, and shook the brown-haired woman's hand, feeling pretty damn proud himself.

Melanie's knowing eyes flickered appraisingly from Alex to Walter as everyone sat down, Alex more gingerly than the rest of the table's occupants.

"Damn, Kim," she said once everyone was settled in, Alex and Kim on one side, Walter and Melanie on the other. "Please tell me one of these two has a brother."

Alex shook his head in wonder at Kim's triumphant grin. It struck him at that moment that Kim had probably never drawn a big heart over the "i" in her name. She simply wasn't that kind of girl. She was Kim with a heart, but not Kim- with-a-heart. Girls in general were forever going to remain a mystery to him, but perhaps if he kept that distinction in mind, he had a fighting chance of understanding, at the very least, this girl.

His girl, he started to think, when a small, soft hand crept along his knee, erasing all conscious thought. Alex looked to his right to see a pair of blue eyes blink innocently over a menu, at the exact moment that a large foot, socked and warm, slid seductively up his calf. The pair of bespectacled brown eyes hovering over another menu, gave him a matching innocent blink.

His lover, he amended. His lovers. Both of them.

THE END


I hope you enjoyed it! Feedback to... Kristen K2 ()



TITLE: Tiger Lilies and Roses (Like a Girl Universe, #3) AUTHOR: Kristen K2 () WEBSITE: http://lzl.dreamhost.com/ExtFamily/Kristen/KristenMain.html PAIRING: Skinner/Krycek/Kim - from the Like a Girl universe RATING: G (what??)
FEEDBACK: Yes, I'd love it.
SUMMARY: Alex goes shopping. Third party POV. DEDICATION: A little snippet for Ursula. I started this back in February, and never got around to finishing it until a couple of weeks ago. Totally beta-free. :)


From the back, the man staring into the cooler of flowers looked no more than seventeen years old. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched him jiggling his foot as he wandered from one end of the display to the other, inspecting each bucket of flowers carefully before moving on to the next. I couldn't catch a glimpse of his face, but the leather jacket and faded blue jeans looked well-worn, hugging his delectable frame nicely. His discomfort and confusion in trying to make a selection radiated off him, which had lent itself to my age estimation. It's always the teenaged boys looking for their first Valentine's Day gift who tend to have the most trouble deciding.

I hadn't seen him come in, since the shop was jammed with just-one-day-to-go shoppers. The week before Valentine's Day is always extremely busy; but the day before is a nightmare. Don't even get me started on the big day itself. If someone could buy flowers at 11:59pm on February 14th, I think they'd do it. It's forever the last-minute shoppers who want the hugest arrangement. But really, I shouldn't complain - this is the one day of the year that supports me through the leaner months. And bringing joy to people, watching their faces explode in delight as they realize that someone loves them enough to overlook the Hallmark sappiness of the holiday and still make an effort, makes all the overtime and headaches worth it.

Miraculously, even with my assistant on her break, I was able to handle all the customers with relative ease. By the time the last one had left the shop, I'd had an opportunity to re-assess the boy's age. Not a boy at all. No, this one was unequivocally a man; and a beautiful one at that. My attention was dragged repeatedly down to his lovely, lovely butt; denim had to be the luckiest cloth around to be invited to drape that ass. When I finally got a glimpse of his face, angelic and devilish at the same time, the only decent thought I had was that he didn't need to send flowers to anyone. The gift of himself would be all any person in their right mind would ever want or need.

Okay, maybe a few rose petals scattered around his naked body, stretched languidly on satin sheets. That would make a memorable Valentine's Day, that's for damn sure.

I had to resist the need to close up shop, and head home for a cold shower.

Once everyone was gone, I left the relative safety of the counter, and made my way over to him. So engrossed in looking inside the cooler, he didn't seem to notice I was standing a little closer than necessary. The scent of leather and that irresistibly male musky odor wafted toward me as I stood beside him, followed by the much fainter aroma of peaches. Damn, he was an attractive man. Whoever was about to be the recipient of his generosity was a lucky, lucky woman.

"Have you decided on what type of message you'd like to send with your gift?" I asked quietly.

He shot a rapid glance in my direction, startled out of his reverie. The olive green of his irises was more vibrant and alive than half the plants I'd spent untold hours tending. And his mouth...good God. Full lips of a delicate pink hue. Lips that looked soft and eminently chewable. A mouth you could dive into and explore for hours, and never quite find what you were seeking.

A mouth that was moving. Oh no, he was responding, and I was too busy fantasizing to hear the words.

"...thought I'd just write Happy Valentine's Day," those addictive lips said. "Why, isn't that what most people write on their cards?"

"Yes it is. I meant what kind of message you wanted the flowers to send." Waving a hand toward the wide variety of roses, I went on, "Each flower has a different meaning. For example, red roses signify true love and desire."

His eyebrows scrunched together, as he glanced from the cooler and back to me. "What do the yellow ones mean?"

"Those vary on your interpretation. Some say they mean joy and gladness, others say friendship."

His look grew more pained, and I bit back a smile at his unease. He hesitated before speaking again. "Are there any that mean something in between?"

"In between?" I hedged. I know I was being petty in forcing him to explain further, but he was just so beautiful I want to prolong the encounter as long as possible. And he apparently wasn't in love with the gift recipient, or at least he didn't want to express that just yet. Not that I presumed to have any chance with him; I'm a lot of things, but stupid isn't one of them. But the impulse to know just one thought that ran through that lovely head was strong, and I gave into it.

"Um, maybe something that means...ah, I care about you," he said quietly, a faraway look in his eye. His whole demeanor suddenly softened, as a mental image of whomever he was thinking of flashed through his mind. Hey, I'm a florist; I deal with people who are falling in love, or are in love, everyday. I know the sentiment when I see it. You don't buy flowers for casual acquaintances; you buy them for the people who mean the most to you.

Feeling a tad guilty for overstepping my bounds, I let the poor man off the hook, and walked him through each definition. "All flowers convey that you care. But roses specifically have a variety of other meanings as well. Pink typically are for admiration, white is for pure love, coral is desire, lavender is love at first sight, and orange means fascination and enthusiasm."

I swear, if his eyebrows knotted any tighter together, he could tie a bow with them. As we walked down the length of the cooler, I pointed to each color behind the refrigerated glass. He stopped at the orange ones.

"Those are probably the best, but..."

"They're not the prettiest?" I supplied. Orange roses are my least favorite; they look like someone dipped them in Cheetos powder.

He gave a little surprised laugh. "Yeah. Um, is this something that all girls know?"

"Pardon me?"

"Is this something that all women know?" he repeated. "Is there a manual about this stuff or something?"

"No." I bit my cheek to prevent my chuckle from escaping. "Most may know about the significance of red roses, but the others, it's not necessarily common knowledge."

"Hmph. I bet she knows," he said, almost to himself. He glanced back at the cooler. "Can you show me the rest, and explain their hidden meanings, too? If it's not too much trouble, that is."

His look accompanying his request could only be defined as shy. That choirboy look, when combined with his bad boy stance, was Swoon City. Lord have mercy on my decrepit soul, but I think at that moment I would have sold my beloved grandchild to the devil for the chance to shave forty years off my age, and have a go at this man myself.

With an earnest smile, I walked him through the rest of the displays, pointing at certain pre-made bouquets, describing how in many cases it's not the history of the flower that has meaning, but often the shape or color of the petal that lends itself to implying an emotion. Sometimes the blossom simply reminds us of a person, either their coloring or their character. He followed me throughout the store, nodding and listening with an intense gaze. When our tour was complete, he gave me a devastating and pleased smile.

"I appreciate this. Can I take a few minutes to decide?"

"Of course. I'll be over at the counter when you're ready."

When I got back to the counter, I forced myself not to stare again at his perfectly-proportioned ass as he wandered seemingly aimlessly in the front of the displays. By this point, I was hoping he'd make his choice quick, because I needed to get into the cooler just to get my heart rate back down to normal.

After another ten minutes of quiet, just as I was beginning to wonder why there hadn't been any customers in well over an hour, he walked over to where I stood, and placed a wad of cash on the wood of the counter. From the size of the bankroll, I estimated it was enough to buy...

"All of them," he said in a decisive tone.

"All the rose--"

"No. All the flowers in the store."

Okay, I'll admit it: I gaped at him.

"S-some of them are pre-paid for," I stuttered. Never in forty-two years has anyone walked into my shop and coolly purchased every damn blossom in their line of vision. In cash. "Valentine's Day is tomorrow, and a lot of peo--"

"That's fine," he replied, all traces of boyish shyness gone. What stood before me now was a man of supreme confidence. Believe me when I tell you his demeanor was almost more attractive than his hesitant one. "You don't have to disappoint any of your other customers. I just want to buy the rest of them."

"Especially those," he said, pointing to a vase of tiger lilies. The orange-red petals were hanging over the edges of the glass, the delicate shape of the blossom offset by their vivid color. "They remind me of her."

I hated to disappoint him, but there wasn't any choice. "Those have already been purchased. I specially ordered them for him."

Green eyes looked at me with frank curiosity. "Him? His name wouldn't happen to be Walter, by any chance?"

"Why, yes it is," I answered, too surprised to think up a reason why I shouldn't disclose a regular's name.

"Figures." The man snorted and shook his head. "Well then, I'll trust your judgment in sending the rest. I'd like them delivered tomorrow, to this address."

He slid a business card out of his breast pocket and handed it to me. I recognized the name instantly; I've been delivering tiger lilies to Kimberly Cook for a while now. Courtesy of the very same Walter that this beautiful stranger and I were just discussing.

"One more thing," the man said. I looked up from the card in my hand to peer into those sexy, smiling eyes one last time. "Please send two dozen of the red roses to the same address, but to a different name."

I picked up a pen to scratch the name on the back of Kim's card. Looked like the two-timing Miss Cook was about to get some competition for the green-eyed delight's affections.

"Go ahead."

"Send the red roses to Walter Skinner."

My, my, my. I had to keep my head down facing the card so as not to display my open curiosity. Mr. Skinner has been to the shop many times, and is no slouch in the looks department himself. He sends flowers to Miss Cook, this young man sends flowers to both Mr. Skinner and Miss Cook...perhaps the young lady isn't two-timing anyone. Washington's an interesting city, but it's rare that things get this interesting. Where the hell were these two gorgeous creatures when I was young?

"Is there a message you want to send?" I asked, pushing my envy back into the corner where it belonged. "On their cards, that is."

"Happy Valentine's Day, Love Alex."

With one last devastating smile and a nod of thanks, he strolled out, whistling tunelessly as he walked.

I followed him to the doorway, flipped the sign to "Closed" and got busy preparing the bouquets. Not only did I not have to deal with any last-minute shoppers, but I was going to get a glimpse at the shocked look on Kimberly Cook's face when I, and a battalion of helpers, walked down the hall of the FBI, with all of these flowers.

Add to my enjoyment the look on Walter Skinner's face when he saw his bouquet, and this had suddenly shaped up to be my best Valentine's Day yet.

Thank you, Alex, I thought as I placed one Cheeto-orange rose in a small vase on the edge of the counter for myself. Miss Cook would never miss it.

THE END


Kristen loves feedback! Kristen K2 ()



TITLE: Her Grief and Her Care (Like a Girl Universe, #4) AUTHOR: Kristen K2 () WEBSITE: http://lzl.dreamhost.com/ExtFamily/Kristen/KristenMain.html

PAIRING: Sk/Kr/Kim Cook (For those of you who don't recognize the name, Kim Cook is Skinner's secretary. Frankly, I think she needs a better agent - CC could do so much more with her character if he applied himself.)

RATING: NC-17 for discussion of discipline, and a threesome relationship. This one is discipline-free, but it's not for children under 17.

SUMMARY: In the aftermath of a spanking, Kim makes some surprising connections between her past and her present. Heavy angst alert.

NOTES: On Panel 12W, row 130, of the Vietnam Wall Memorial, there is a name of a Sgt. James John Cook of Gladstone, Michigan. He was born on 8/28/49 and died on 4/13/70. He was 20. His death is listed as a ground casualty, killed by an explosive device. He was drafted by the Selective Service. (information provided by http://grunt.space.swri.edu/thewall/thewall.html)I don't know who he was, but I'm sure there is someone who loved him and misses him still. This story is dedicated to that mourner.

DISCLAIMER: Nobody in this belongs to me, not even Tabitha. Timmy belongs to Lorelei, and from what I hear, is very affectionate. :)

THANKS: To Lorelei, for bringing so much of this story to life. Your inspired plot-bunnies, endless encouragement, and valued friendship are the primary reasons that this series exists. And to Ursula, for being a wonderful beta and a great friend.

FEEDBACK: Yes, I'd love it.


it's not just sentimental, no, no, no
she has her grief and her care
but the soft words, they are spoke so gentle and it makes it easier, easier to bear
- "Try a Little Tenderness", The Commitments

In 1969, when she was still an innocent child, the two greatest heroes in Kim's life were her big brother Kevin, and Tabitha from "Bewitched".

From Kim's five-year-old perspective, Kevin was a god. He was many years older than she was, almost fourteen years, but he never made her feel like she was a burden to him, like her mother did. He would take her out for ice cream whenever their parents had one of their silent angry stare- offs, or when their father stumbled into the house with funny-smelling breath, which she later learned was bourbon. Kevin was an expert at re-tying the ribbon in her hair when it unknotted while she played in the backyard, racing around in circles or climbing the big oak tree. Unlike her mother, he never told her that running was unladylike, and that no man would ever love a girl with scabs on her bony knees. One of her favorite pastimes was when he would hold her high on his shoulders so she could throw the basketball into the hoop over the garage door, just like she watched him do. Kevin was the only person Kim had ever known who loved her unconditionally.

But Kevin couldn't wriggle his nose, and make nursery rhyme characters come to life; that was Tabitha's special trick. Tabitha could do anything she wanted, because she was a witch with magic powers. She could turn into a butterfly, or make people smile when they didn't want to, and probably make them stop glaring at each other with those icy gazes that caused chills to run down Kim's spine. Tabitha's parents loved her, and never made her feel like they didn't want her. Tabitha wasn't an accident, as her mother was fond of calling Kim.

In the fall of 1969, the strangest thing happened: a new father for Tabitha appeared on the screen, and nobody said one word about it. Nobody on the TV show even noticed that someone had switched the old Darrin with a new one. Kim couldn't get over it. The two Darrins didn't even look alike; why didn't Tabitha and Samantha realize they had an imposter in their midst? Her own father wasn't home very much, but Kim was certain she'd know if another man walked in their front door and tried to take his place. She pondered the question for months, before it dawned on her that she could take advantage of the situation, and fulfill her favorite dream. She could run away from home, and move to California to the Stevens house. She could switch places with Tabitha, and no one would be the wiser. It was the perfect plan, at least to her five-year-old cognitive reasoning.

So Kim packed all of her worldly belongings into her Radio Flyer wagon to begin her great journey to her new life. Her mom and dad were out attending a party for grown-ups, and Kevin was home from college, and was supposed to be babysitting her. But he was upstairs in his room, with his door closed and locked, listening to rock music. Loudly. Her mom didn't allow him to turn up his speakers that high when she was home. She was already very angry with him for being home from school; Kim wasn't old enough to know what "expelled" meant, but she figured it was a bad thing. Mom and Dad were barely speaking to Kevin. This wasn't a new development for the Cooks; there were plenty of times that her house was eerily silent with stifled resentment. Kevin did bad things a lot.

She was nearly finished packing her wagon when Kevin, wearing his beat-up bomber jacket, appeared in the garage doorway, slouching against the frame. "What'cha doin', snicker doodle?" he slurred, the whites of his eyes webbed with red. Kim knew if she got close enough, she'd smell that sickeningly sweet stuff she forever associated with him. Her entire life, she would never be able to smell the combination of leather and pot without reminiscing about her big brother.

Kim made a face at the hated nickname. "Packing," she said abruptly, unwilling to admit she was going to miss seeing her brother every day. She was a big girl, she was going to be six next year, and she'd just get used to his absence. It wouldn't be the same as when he'd gone away to college, and her insides felt like someone had cratered out a huge hole with a melon baller. "I'm moving to California."

Kevin shifted his shoulder against the doorframe. "California? Who lives there?"

"Tabitha does," she reminded him. "I'm going to live in her house and learn how to be a witch."

When she turned around to look up at him, it had seemed like he was happy and sad at the same time. But he didn't try to stop her from leaving. All he did was ask her, "Did you pack any food? It's a long trip across the country. You might get hungry." Kim shook her head no. "Wait here a minute, okay?" he said, lifting himself out of the doorway. "I'll be right back."

A few minutes later, he returned clutching a paper bag. Kim remembered that Kevin had crouched down so they were eye level, and showed her what he'd packed for her trip. A quart of whole milk, a loaf of squishy white bread, and two jars, one of peanut butter and one of Fluff. Kim was very touched that he remembered their secret snack. Sometimes she had nightmares, and Kevin was always the one who woke her up and dried her tears. When she was calm again, he would carry her on his back down to the kitchen, and they would sit at the table eating peanut-butter-and-Fluff sandwiches, whispering so they didn't wake up their parents.

"But, Kevin," she protested, "I can't make a sandwich. I'm not big enough to use a knife, remember? Mom says I have to wait until I'm seven."

Her brother took a butter knife, the kind with no sharp edges and a rounded tip, out of the bag, and placed it in her hand, fisting his large fingers around her tiny ones. "Anybody who's big enough to move out on their own all the way to California is big enough to use a knife. C'mon, snicker doodle, you've made sandwiches for us plenty of times. Mom only made that rule because she doesn't understand what you're capable of. I know you better, and I know you can do it." Kevin dropped the knife back in the bag, and stood up, ruffling her hair. "I'm proud of you."

At that moment, Kim almost stopped herself from leaving. All she wanted to do was throw her arms around her brother's legs, and stay with him forever. Nobody in her family had ever told Kim, before or since, that they were proud of her. But she didn't do anything; they weren't a family prone to physical gestures. People didn't hug, or kiss, or even pat each other on the back. It had taken her years to overcome the idea that touching someone was unwelcome; until Walter, and now Alex to a lesser degree, she'd rarely been hugged. But at the time, she hadn't learned that vital lesson. Instead, she very carefully placed the bag in her wagon, zipped up her coat, making sure to tie the ends of her hood so it stayed firmly on her head, and waved goodbye. Her brother stood pensively watching her walk down the driveway, his balled-up hands shoved into his pockets.

Some time later, she stood on the corner at the end of her very long street, her bangs matted to her forehead from the sweat born of pulling her over-laden wagon, and her hands starting to get cold. Mittens. She'd forgotten her mittens. What a dummy she was. But she'd traveled so far, it was too late to turn back. Even though it was getting dark. Big girls old enough to use their very own knives aren't afraid of the dark, she reminded herself.

Kim was standing on the corner, trying to decide which way would lead her to California, when a car eased up next to her. The clang of the rusty muffler told her who was driving. When she turned to confirm it, her brother rolled down his window, holding up the mittens she'd left behind.

"Thought you might need these," he said quietly. Then he opened his door, and waved to her to come closer, sliding the scratchy wool over her numb fingers. His shock of red hair gleamed in the street light overhead. Brushing her damp bangs aside, his blue eyes matched hers with the same sad expression. "Don't leave, snicker doodle. I'll really miss you. Let me take you home, okay?"

As she nodded her approval, Kim didn't even try to stop the tears that ran down her chubby cheeks. She was tired, and lonely, and scared. Running away was much harder than it had seemed. Kevin put her wagon and all of her belongings in the trunk, then scooped her up onto his hip to carry her to the passenger's side, letting her bury her face in his neck without commenting. Just before he placed her in her seat, he squeezed her really hard, and Kim was so happy to be hugged and to feel safe, she didn't tell him that she couldn't breathe. When they got home, Kevin put her stuff away, and Kim made them each a peanut-butter-and-Fluff sandwich, which they ate quietly at the kitchen table.

The following month, December of 1969, the draft lottery was drawn, and Kevin's birthday was a low number. Kim watched the lottery on TV with him; she recalled thinking that if he had been born on her birth date, he might not have had to go away. To this day, Kim was unable to watch TV in the dark, and not see the dim blue glow from the screen flickering across her brother's familiar features, so similar to her own. She would always remember the look of absolute terror, then resignation, that had streaked across his wide, dark eyes.

The night before he left for boot camp, they shared their last peanut-butter-and-Fluff sandwich in the kitchen, and Kevin made her promise that she wouldn't run away while he was gone. Kim agreed, because she knew as well as he did that no one would come looking for her if she disappeared.

Before the end of the spring of 1970, her beloved big brother was dead in the jungles of Vietnam, and there was no one willing to console her when she woke up with nightmares, of which there were many. She never watched Bewitched again; even Tabitha and her magic nose couldn't bring her brother back home. Kim was left with a bereft set of parents who hadn't liked her all that much to begin with, and a lifelong fondness for that comforting combination of gooey marshmallow, thick peanut butter, doughy bread, and cold, cold milk.


The acrid taste of metal and rubber filled Kim's mouth, jolting her back to reality. Her troubled gaze took in the chewed-up pencil in her hand, then headed down to the half- blank Sunday crossword puzzle on the table before her.

She shook her head to clear away the cobwebs of memory. What was she doing, pining for Kevin now? Hungering for a taste of something long missing? She'd made her peace with his death years before; it didn't bear dwelling on now, in her present. Her life was now, and here, with Walter and Alex. She was a grown woman, not a lost little girl. She had two men who cared for her, who hugged and kissed and did all the things that lovers were supposed to do.

Things they were doing to each other, as she sat at the built-in table of the breakfast nook off the kitchen. Alex's sobs had died down a while ago, but Kim could still hear their loving murmurs drifting out from the living room. Normally, she preferred to leave the two alone after a hot-butting session, but the nasty weather prevented that today. She'd gotten halfway to her car, fighting the bitter wind and snow of winter's last gasp whipping against her face, before she'd given up and headed back inside. Neither man had been cognizant of her departure, or return.

For the hundredth time, Kim told herself that it was normal, and to be expected. From the beginning, she'd known, without anyone telling her, that once the spanking was over, her presence was no longer required, and in fact, not wanted. It was really only Alex who seemed to want her there; once Walter shifted into discipline mode, he ceased to pay her any attention. Kim got the distinct impression that if it hadn't been for Alex's request that she stay, her burly lover would have preferred she be nowhere near the room. But it was Alex's choice, and he respected that. A typical Walter gesture, overlooking his own conflicted feelings to help someone in need.

Kim had watched him perform a similar routine in the office -- excluding any hot-butting, but including the stern looks and tersely coiled tones -- for years, whenever some hapless Agents spun out of control. It hadn't taken her long to see that his hard-ass stance was only a thin shell surrounding who he was, deep down. Walter's size and physical strength led most people to believe he was tough down to his bones, heartless and cold. The real truth was that underneath all his armor, behind the role he was compelled to play, dwelled a very gentle man. A man full of tenderness and compassion, who was willing to risk his well-being to protect the people he loved. A man who loved Alex Krycek enough to put on his don't-mess-with-me AD persona, turn his lover over on his knee, and smack his ass raw. If that was what was required to keep Alex safe, then her gentle Walter did it.

If Walter could do it, then so would Kim. Despite her misgivings, she played out her minor role in the discipline as best she could. But once Alex's anguished green eyes stopped pinning her like a trapped butterfly to the spot where she stood, and his thick lashes, wet with remorse, lowered to direct his gaze from her face down to the couch, Kim made her temporary escape. She deliberately made herself scarce, sometimes heading for a nearby diner for a cup of coffee and a cigarette, other times blindly circling the block, until her hands stopped shaking from the leftover emotions of the scene she'd left behind. Once, she'd even trekked all the way to the Wall, where she stood in front of Kevin's name, and rubbed it until she thought the letters were tattooed to her fingertips.

Damn. There she was, doing it again. Stop thinking about him, Kim, she remonstrated. He's gone; he's been gone for a long time. Purposely, she picked back up her fallen pencil, and focused all her attention on the crossword puzzle.

She was mulling over a seven-letter word for "fermenting disease" when she felt an over-sized hand sweep over her shoulder, squeezing it lightly. Without looking up, Kim scooted over on the bench seat to make room for Walter, who slid in next to her, twisting both of them so her back rested against his side, and wrapping one strong arm around her waist. Although he deliberately ignored her during discipline, he made a special effort to seek her out immediately when she returned. Kim deeply appreciated the thoughtful gesture, and hoped it helped him as much as it did her. After all those years of not being touched by someone who loved her, she adapted surprisingly easily to the change. Then again, how could anyone not want to be hugged by Walter Skinner?

"Zymosis," he said, his voice feather light against the edge of her ear.

"Hmm?"

He tapped the folded newspaper. "Fermenting disease. The word is zymosis."

She looked over her shoulder into a pair of smiling brown eyes, unable to resist returning the amused look in them. "You made that up."

"No, I'm serious," he chuckled. "Read it an report last week."

"You did not. I've seen all the reports that came across your desk, and believe me, zymosis wasn't mentioned," Kim retorted.

Walter's sheepish look made an appearance, the one that always crossed his expression when he knew he was about to be busted by his secretary for lost paperwork. When the Bureau promoted him to a desk job, they may have gained an able administrator, a caring and generous supervisor, and a skilled office politician, but Walter's heart would always be in the field. He'd much rather be solving a case than reading about it. Over time, Kim had gotten creative in her methods of keeping him on track.

Her favorite was their mid-week file reviews, which had evolved into one of the various ways by which Kim and Walter had moved beyond their roles of boss-subordinate into a more personal, and ultimately very personal, relationship. They had spent many a Wednesday night, with shoes kicked off and their feet -- his socked and hers stocking-ed -- up on his conference table, passing reports, laughter, and pizza slices between them. It was during those intimate late-night sessions that she'd first begun to see behind the AD Skinner faade he'd perfected so well. Some of the zanier X Files were primary targets of Walter's well-hidden sense of humor; she had no idea he even knew how to smile until she'd instituted File Night. Kim was always extra-nice to Mulder and Scully once she and Walter had become lovers; if it weren't for them, she might not have the life she did now.

"I might have a few in my..." he muttered with a guilty jerk of his chin toward the general direction of the living room, where his briefcase had sat untouched on the desk since the beginning of the weekend.

Kim groaned theatrically. "Please tell me you didn't leave them in your briefcase. How long have they been sitting in there?"

"A couple of days, Thursday at the latest, I swear," he answered, dipping his mouth to her neck, and nuzzling until she released a sigh of pleasure. He was only trying to distract her from becoming annoyed at his misplacing some files, but it worked. Wonderfully.

"So," she said in a mild tone, letting her weariness be washed away in the levity of the moment, "tell me what kind of shenanigans Mulder and Scully were up to in the missing report."

A soft laugh tickled the bottom of her earlobe. "Why do you think it was an X File?"

"Because the only thing Agent Iverson knows about fermenting is how to unscrew a beer bottle cap, if he knows that much, and he and the Dynamic Duo were your last two appointments on Thursday. Spill the beans, AD Skinner."

Walter snorted another laugh, and leaned back against the bench. "Remind me to give you an application for a Special Agent position on Monday," he commented dryly. "Your investigative talents are being wasted."

Kim tapped the puzzle with her pencil, feeling vaguely unsettled. On one hand, it was nice to get some recognition for being perceptive. On the other, she had acquired that skill the hard way. Everyone she knew as an adult teased her for what they believed was her innate talent at reading people's faces, but the truth was rooted in something much more earth-bound. Most children of alcoholic parents learn early on to watch for mood swings; Kim simply took those lessons into her adulthood. It was one of the few positive gifts she'd ever received from her father. "Zymosis?" she prompted, keeping the conversation on track.

Walter mock-sighed. "Zymosis is, and I quote Special Agent Doctor Scully, fermentation as a cause of disease. It was a case in Montana involving some bored college kids, and a still. They whipped up a batch of moonshine, and somehow encouraged the townsfolk to consume their illegal liquor. Which, allegedly," he continued, his eyes beginning to twinkle with held-back humor, "made them, ah, over-aroused. Very over-aroused."

Kim hid her smirk behind her hand. While most of the X Files were of a very serious nature, there were some that defied all expectations of plausibility. Many of those were downright funny. She had an easier time accepting the idea of aliens and government conspiracies, especially given all that Walter and Alex had been through, than she did the notion that there were nerdy guys born with tails sprouting from their butts. This particular X File conversation looked like it was headed in the comical direction, and she was eager to hear the grand finale.

Pushing the puzzle aside as she rested her arm on the table, Kim leaned the side of her head onto her bent hand. From this angle she had a full view of Walter's face, which was a lovely perk. The animated expression that danced across his broad features when he told a joke was so unlike his stern work/hot-butt demeanor, it was like looking at a new person. Relaxed, amused, without his glasses, Walter Skinner was a delicious feast for the eyes.

"So the whole town starting boinking like rabbits?"

"Well, 'boinking' isn't the scientific term, but yes, I believe that would be accurate. Group orgies, in the middle of Main Street, according to the report."

As he spoke, he shifted on the seat so he too was leaning against the table, his face a few inches from hers. His other arm remained draped around her waist, his large fingers dipping beneath her clothes to slide lazily across her bare skin. The contact, and the conversation, instantly fueled some rather steamy fantasies of Walter, Alex and herself, which she filed in the back of her brain for later. Much later.

"Ah, Walter, that doesn't exactly sound like a problem, does it? Why would anyone call the FBI to report too much sex?"

"Beats the hell out of me," Walter grinned, leaning forward to kiss the tip of her nose. "Personally, I think Mulder dug up the case on his own. Might have been part of one of those porn email groups he belongs to that he thinks I don't know about. And, Mulder being Mulder, he had to go investigate."

"So Scully's scientific opinion was that the kids had screwed up the fermentation process, and accidentally had brewed Love Potion Number Nine?" she wisecracked, as Walter smothered his chortle, nodding. "What did Mulder think had happened?"

Walter's grin widened. "For the first time in the history of the X Files, Agent Mulder was without a theory. He made a few feeble jabs at some ridiculous idea of moons in alignment or some such nonsense, but it was pretty clear that his head was still full of the scene they'd left in Montana, of an entire town doing the hoochie-coochie with their neighbors."

"Poor Agent Scully. There she was, standing in the middle of Mulder's wettest dream come true."

Walter tilted his head back, his surprised bark of laughter booming across the ceiling tiles. "Oh God, hon, I didn't even picture that. It certainly explains her foul temper during the meeting. Christ, I was worried she knew I was hanging onto my somber AD composure by a thread."

What she wouldn't have given to have been a fly on the wall during this meeting. Walter usually filled her in on many of the details she missed, but late Thursday afternoon had been hectic, and she'd slept at her apartment that night. Friday had been even busier than the rest of the week combined. Since she was supposed to have gone on a date with Alex on Friday -- which he'd never shown up for -- Walter sent her home early, and she'd missed all the fun.

Pity, too, because it turned out to be the last bit of humor either of them had, until this very moment. During the rest of the weekend, since they'd both been so worried about Alex's continued disappearance, she and Walter had neither the time nor the inclination to discuss work issues. Instead, they'd spent their hours hunting through hospitals and jails and God, even morgues, before finding Alex three sheets to the wind in a semi-respectable bar in downtown Washington. It was only due to Kim's wide network of friends that they'd found him at all; if she hadn't known the bartender from her softball league, she and Walter might never have located their errant lover. And if they hadn't...no. Her mind refused to consider the possibility.

So busy was Kim on this derailed train of thought, she didn't notice that Walter's amusement had drained from his expression.

"Kim, it's over," he said, his tone instantly serious. "He's home, and he's fine. A little hung over, and his ass is plenty sore, but he's in one piece."

"I know," she sighed, lifting her free hand to stroke his clenching jaw. "I am grateful he's safe. Very much so."

He drew her closer at the waist. "Me too. It was a very long weekend. I'm glad you were here with me this time. You kept me sane." He planted a kiss on her forehead, his breath fluttering a wayward lock of her hair out in a warm puff. "You always do. Thank you for that."

"It's my pleasure," she answered, leaning over to catch his lips with hers, her hand cupping his nape as he slid his tongue into her mouth, kissing her soundly. It still touched and amazed Kim that Walter looked to her for comfort. That this strong, confident man felt comfortable sharing his internal doubts and anxieties with her was a source of immense pride. For many years that she worked for him, he kept his emotions close to his vest, not giving much away. It had taken a long time before he let her in, but when he had, it was permanent, and satisfying.

They sat that way for a bit, kissing and snuggling, until Walter pulled his head back with a resigned growl. "As much as I'd prefer to stay here, I've got to make a run to the grocery store for supplies for dinner. You're staying over tonight, right?"

Kim glanced out the window at the swirling snow. The prospect of sleeping between Alex and Walter was tempting, if Alex was up for that tonight. He'd barely spoken to her since he woke up this morning. Kim wasn't sure if he was upset with her for contacting Walter when Alex was a no- show at the restaurant, or if he was embarrassed that they'd found him drunk out of his mind and one smart-assed comment away from instigating a bar brawl. For a Russian, he really had trouble holding his liquor. His vicious hangover this morning was all the proof she needed of that.

She did need to get home to feed her cat, but she certainly had enough supplies in her car if she stayed. Her over- stuffed Honda Civic acted as a giant suitcase lately, holding all the various things she needed as she juggled her time between the Hoover building, Alex and Walter's condo in Crystal City, and her apartment in Arlington. Thank goodness Mel lived in her building. Now that Kim had told her about her lovers, her friend was happy to stop by and feed poor, neglected Timmy whenever Kim wasn't able to coordinate a stop at her place. Eventually, she knew she had put her foot down, and tell Walter and Alex that she couldn't live like this, but that time hadn't arrived yet. Walter would love if they all lived together, that much was evident; Alex wasn't anywhere close to that point. Neither was Kim.

"I dunno," she hedged, as a sweet marshmallow taste filled her mouth. She took it as a sign to follow her instincts and go home. "If you're headed out, maybe you can give me a jump if my battery acts up again. It's been working in fits and starts all week."

Walter was already at the cupboards in the kitchen, opening and closing, and scribbling down a list of essentials. He stopped his hurried movement, looking directly at her.

"Kim? Is something the matter? I thought you said you were staying."

She shrugged as nonchalantly as she could, surprised at her own reluctance to confide in her obviously worried lover. "I'm fine. It's just that I've been here all weekend, and I thought maybe I should go home. Get some clean clothes, catch up on phone calls, play with Timmy, that kind of thing."

For her uncharacteristic coyness, she was treated to a quintessential Walter Skinner Eyebrow Lift of Incredulity. "You have a clean work outfit in the closet upstairs, there are multiple phones available for use here, and Timmy is the most ornery, don't-touch-me cat I know. He hates when you play with him. What's really the matter?"

"Nothing." She caught the settled look in his eye, and suddenly understood why Alex squirmed when that look was directed at him. Felt like being under a damn microscope.

A few minutes ticked by, and Kim realized he wasn't going to let her off the hook. She took a deep breath, then exhaled, when a sudden rush of homesickness filled the space in her heart.

"I want to go home," she heard herself whisper into the silence enshrouding the kitchen.

She had been a good girl all her life. She kept her promise to Kevin, and she never ran away from home after he left for Vietnam. No matter how bad something got, no matter how hurt or scared she felt, Kim held her ground, and stayed. It was the least she could do to honor her fallen hero. He had done his part, and now she did hers.

Now she wanted her reward for good behavior. She wanted to go home.

Home, to Kevin, and Bewitched, and peanut-butter-and-Fluff sandwiches.

Home, where nobody got blown to smithereens in a jungle half a world away from the little sister who adored him.

Where nobody ran away.

Where nobody got hot-butted.

Where nobody got loved.

The images and yearnings swirling inside her heart only served to confuse her more. Was that really where she wanted to go? Why didn't it alleviate the ache?

"You are home, Kim," a tender voice infiltrated her consciousness.

Blinking back the tears muddying her vision, she focused on Walter, who had left the counter area to crouch next to the bench. He took her hands in his, rubbing her numb fingers back to life. Kim could feel the scratchy wool from thirty years prior, when her brother had put her mittens on her cold hands, and begged her to stay with him.

"This is your home, sweetheart," Walter continued, his voice as steady and nurturing as a spring rain. "You live here, as permanently as Alex and I do."

"No, I don't," she argued. "I--"

"Yes you do. You have no idea what it's like on the nights you're not here. Alex and I look at each other, both of us sensing the empty space where you should be. A dozen times, Alex will start a sentence, then realize he was about to say it to you. I'm equally as bad. I watch Alex sitting on the couch, or making dinner, and I find that I'm looking for you, too. The picture's not complete."

"Walter," she croaked, wiping an errant tear from her cheek, "you two are fine without me. You don't need me."

"Wrong again. It doesn't work the same anymore, Kim, not without you. I've needed you for so long, you know I have, and Alex does, too--"

"He doesn't need me," she protested, appalled at how pathetic she sounded. This wasn't her, to embroil Walter in her unhappiness. He leaned on her, not the other way around. It was the main thing she prided herself on in their relationship, that she was the strong one. Someone he could turn to in a moment of crisis, and not have to face another needy, 'help me, Skinner' look. A soft place where he could land, when the rare doubt overtook his regular decisiveness. To have switched roles felt all wrong to Kim.

"He needs you more than he can admit," Walter insisted. "If Alex were the type of person who could say those things easily, then you would have been living here ages ago. It took me years to get him to talk openly, Kim, and I suspect you run into the same resistance." He stroked her cheek. "Probably took me as long to break through Alex's wall of silence as it took you to break through mine."

Kim returned his soft smile. "It was worth it. You're worth it."

"So is Alex."

She nodded her agreement, unclear as to why she felt such a strong tug of hesitation. She cared for her green-eyed lover, deeply, but something was holding her back from falling in love with him. There were days when she felt as if she stood on the edge of a cliff. Priceless moments when the shy, incandescent smile on Alex's face as she stood in front of him talking took her breath away. Or when she would exit the Hoover Building and spot him waiting in his car to pick her up for dinner, and watch his entire demeanor shift from wariness to anticipation when he saw her approach. It would be so easy to tilt into the wind at those moments, hurtling down into love with him, but Kim always pulled herself back from the brink. Try as she might, there was something intangible yet very real that prevented her from taking that one last step.

If Kevin were here, she would ask him. Kim had the strangest idea that he might know the answer.

"Where is he, by the way?" she asked, by way of ending the conversation before she was a puddle of weepy, cloying goo. She was much too raw to think about any of this rationally. Better to tackle it when she got off the emotional roller coaster she was riding. "Sleeping the rest of his hangover away?"

Walter stood, stretching his long legs as he rose. They had worked together long enough for him to recognize when it was time to switch gears. "Probably. He headed upstairs. Maybe you should join him, while I go grocery shopping."

"No, I can go to the store with you," she offered as she stood and stretched her own legs. They might not be as long as either of her lovers', but they still got cramped. "The snow's coming down pretty hard. You might need some help with the bags."

Shooting her a disdainful look, Walter shook his head. "Go take a nap, hon. I think I can handle a little snow. I know I can handle a few bags of groceries."

Kim sighed. Walter was back in AD Skinner mode, which she heard in the implacability in his tone. "Anything else you'd like to me to do, sir?" she asked, frustrated.

He scooped her into his arms as she passed him at the counter, dropping a light kiss onto the top of her head.

"Yes. Tell me what you'd like to have for dinner. Alex is officially off duty tonight, so I'm cooking."

One peanut-butter-and-Fluff sandwich, please, a five year old voice in her head replied.

Walter's laugh was muffled, since his face was buried in her hair. "What the hell is Fluff?"

Oh God, did she say that out loud? Damn. She had. "It's...never mind," she answered, fruitlessly squirming in his embrace. Walter held her fast, until she gave up wriggling. No point in making a bigger fool out of herself than she already was. "Fluff is whipped marshmallow. It's part of a sandwich I used to make for Kevin and me."

Muscular arms tightened around her shoulders, and Kim returned the comforting hug. She hadn't meant to sound as forlorn as she did, but she heard the sadness in her tone as clearly as Walter must have.

She'd known that he was a Vietnam vet, of course. Well before they had become lovers, she used to see him at the Wall during the occasional lunch hour. She never disturbed him during that time, nor did he her. It wasn't until they had grown closer over the last few years that they discussed the war and its aftereffects on both of them.

Before moving to DC, and finally laying her eyes on the Wall, Kim hadn't uttered her brother's name in nearly two decades. Looked at pictures, yes; thought about him, yes; talked about him, no. It wasn't until she had finally seen it, solidly etched in the cool, black marble, that Kim had been able to mourn Kevin properly. When he'd died, there hadn't been enough of him to bury, and her parents had gone into complete denial, not even allowing her brother the dignity of a gravestone.

Walter Skinner was the only person she'd ever talked about Kevin with; not even Melanie, as close as they were, had gotten that far into Kim's confidence. He just wasn't something she discussed. Not even with her best friend. The wounds still ran too deep.

Kim rested her head against Walter's chest, stealing a moment of comfort. Much of her recovery from Kevin's untimely death had been due to the man in her arms. The countless hours spent talking about the War healed both of them. That, and their time at the Wall, either separately or together. Some secretaries and bosses had hot, steaming affairs at the Watergate Hotel; Kim had fallen for her boss at a monument to a lost battle and forsaken youth.

"I'll buy some Fluff," Walter murmured, tilting her chin up to give her a lingering kiss. His thumb rubbed a soft line under her eye, tracing the dark circle. "If you promise me you'll go lie down and rest. You look beat."

"Deal," she agreed, sliding out of the warm circle of Walter. As she pushed open the kitchen door, Kim tossed over her shoulder, "And pick up some milk, please. That soy junk in the fridge doesn't count as real milk."

Just before she left the kitchen, Kim realized she'd forgotten something important. She turned, walked the few steps back to the counter, and flung her arms around Walter's neck, lifting herself up on the balls of her feet to reach him. "I do love you, Walter," she said fiercely.

She felt him pull her tightly to his elongated frame, as his smile broadened against her cheek. "Love you too, Kim," he replied, before letting her go with a nudge to her hip. "Now go upstairs before I toss you over my shoulder and drag you there myself. That's an order, Ms. Cook."

"Yes, sir," she smirked, and bolted out of the room before he carried out his toothless threat. Not that it would be a bad thing if she disobeyed, of course, but Alex probably wouldn't appreciate their horsing around while he was trying to get some much-needed sleep.

She actually could use a few minutes of shut-eye, Kim admitted as she headed up the stairs. She hadn't slept much since Friday. A short nap might ease the last of the anxiety percolating through her system. The added benefit of doing it upstairs was that Alex was there, and they'd both be in the bed. Kim didn't understand why, but Walter's bed was the one and only place where Alex let down his defenses enough to let her touch him, and where he felt comfortable enough to reciprocate. Everywhere else, there was always a moment of hesitation before he allowed physical contact.

Which was a true shame, because Alex Krycek was one of the best huggers in the world. What Alex lacked in limbs, he made up in tenderness. He hugged with his whole body, to the point where Kim couldn't separate where she started and he stopped. When he held her, even his eyes got into the act, swallowing her up in jade heat. On the nights that she stayed over at Walter and Alex's place, she awoke to the feel of satiny skin pressed lightly against hers, and soft lips roaming somewhere on her body. Smiling green eyes were a hell of a great alarm clock.

Her pupils took a few minutes to adjust to the dim light once she silently entered the hushed bedroom. The lamps by the bed were turned off, but Alex had cracked the blinds halfway, bathing all the furniture in pale stripes. The falling snow outside formed a flickering pattern dancing between each blind, creating the dizzying illusion that it was snowing colorless specks indoors. The warmth and intimacy of the bedroom softened the bitterness of the storm, stripping it of its cruelty, and leaving soothing, inviting imagery in its place.

As her vision corrected itself, the lump on the king-size bed solidified into the shape of a prone man. Kim took a moment to study the simple beauty of Alex Krycek at rest. His dark head was turned toward the pillow, denying her the opportunity to see his exquisitely sculpted face in repose. He lay on his stomach on the left side of the bed, closest to the window. It was difficult to see clearly across the room, but it looked as if he'd tucked his lone arm underneath the pillow supporting his head.

His nakedness led Kim to assume he was asleep. Unless the three of them were in bed together, and often even then, Alex was extremely conscientious of hiding his stump from her view. It struck her as strange that he had no problem in baring his ass to her during hot-butt time, yet he still shied away from letting her near his truncated arm, but she didn't press the issue. Some weaknesses were easier for him to reveal than others, she presumed, understanding far too well the need to project an image of strength in the face of adversity. She hadn't had nearly the hard life that Alex had, but she'd endured her share.

With her hand resting on the doorknob behind her, Kim held her body statue-still, wrestling with the selfish desire to burrow into his side and possibly disturb his sleep, and the better instinct to leave him alone in his moment of tranquility. She slowly turned the knob so it clicked closed as silently as possible, her gaze sweeping down the graceful pattern of the blinds down his back. The thin gray strips of light curved along the valleys and peaks of his toned spine and shoulders. As her line of vision halted at the smooth, brightly-colored stripes on his ass, Kim's hand flew to her throat to squelch her gasp of shock.

What the hell was...?

Oh God.

Alex lifted his head from its resting place and turned toward her at the exact moment that Kim spotted the red welts on his butt cheeks. Now that she could separate shadows from concrete images in the dim light, she realized she was staring at the marks from Walter's belt.

"Did you need something?" The chill in his voice tore her gaze temporarily from his red ass to his red-rimmed eyes.

"Does it hurt?" she whispered. Stupid question. Very stupid question.

Alex snapped, "It's supposed to hur--", before stopping to peer at her stricken face. He finished, far more gently than how he'd begun, "No, sweetheart, it's okay. It's just a hot butt, remember?" Kim nodded, unable to look at anything but the discolored marks on his pale skin. She had never been spanked as a child. Never. Not even a minor swat on her fanny when she'd thrown the rare temper tantrum. Her mother could freeze her with a look; corporal punishment wasn't necessary. So she had no frame of reference for what it felt like afterward.

Even the one time she'd spanked Alex hadn't really helped her figure out what it felt like to be the recipient. Based on the severity of Alex's cries during his discipline sessions with Walter, she had assumed it was excruciating. The physical evidence of his fiery, red ass, which she only caught brief glimpses of before she scurried from the room, hadn't given her any indication of the amount of pain he suffered. Not being able to understand gnawed at her.

Eventually, she worked up the nerve to ask Alex directly, and, after a great deal of reluctance, he had told her that spanking didn't feel painful as much as it left his skin feeling over-heated and sensitive, like a bad sunburn. It gave him a hot butt, he had said, and Kim took refuge in that phrase. Thinking of the discipline like that made it much easier to accept. Once she'd done that, she'd been able to move past her initial fear, and really see the value of Walter and Alex's agreement. No matter what she might argue against it, hot-butting helped Alex.

Except that right now he looked like he was still in pain, she realized with a sinking heart, as she looked back at his face, and spotted the drying tear tracks.

"Alex..." she whispered, then stopped, because she didn't know what else to say.

He gave another heavy sigh, and turned his attention back toward the pillow. "I'm fine, Kim. Go back downstairs," he said in a dismissive tone.

Alex had been lying up here amidst the peaceful dancing snowflakes, anguished and weeping to himself, the whole time she and Walter were talking and joking in the kitchen. The ugly realization hit Kim like a brick hurled at her solar plexus.

No.

This was wrong.

And leaving him here to continue suffering alone was even worse.

Her selfish desires abandoned, Kim walked away from the door into the en-suite bathroom, ignoring her toiletries on the counter as she rummaged through the full drawers for the bottle of aloe that Walter kept for burns and cuts. If hot-butting felt like a sunburn, then the gel should help cool the sting. She was no doctor, but she hadn't earned her fifth-grade Girl Scout badge for First Aid by resting on her laurels.

Alex remained motionless on the bed as she emerged from the bathroom. He kept his head facedown in the pillow when Kim sat down next to him, straightening her legs parallel to his. She heard a muffled sniffle, but other than that, he seemed oblivious to her presence.

She squeezed a mound of clear gel onto her shaking fingers, then snapped the cap shut. Eying the firm, glowing buttocks before her, she tried to gauge where he was in the most need of immediate care. Up close, it didn't look half as bad as it had from the doorway, which relieved her tremendously. She could make out a few faint lines from the belt, but overall his cheeks and upper thighs were covered in twin ovals of reddened flesh. No slim nicks where the edge of the belt might have bit deeper into his skin, no small bloody cuts, nothing but a well-disciplined ass. Even a novice to spanking like Kim was had to appreciate the consistency and control in Walter's aim. Perhaps Alex hadn't downplayed the level of pain, after all.

His taut muscles contracted instinctively underneath her fingertips, but she didn't stop rubbing until she heard him moan.

"Too hard?" she whispered.

"No, s'good," he slurred. "But you shouldn't--"

"Sssh. Relax, Alex."

"I don't want you to see me like this," he said, his voice as gravelly and bumpy as three miles of unpaved road.

"I don't want to see you like this either," she replied softly. He twisted his neck to look at her with shining eyes. "Please...let me help you."

"'Kay," Alex allowed, relaxing infinitesimally. She continued her ministrations, coating his red skin with a thin layer of the cooling gel, then reaching for the tube for more. Hot, my foot, she fumed impotently. You could fry an egg on his scorched butt.

"M'sorry, Kim," he mumbled.

"There's no need to apologize. You didn't do anything to me."

He sniffled, still gazing over his shoulder at her. "I stood you up. I should have called you or something."

Kim melted at the bashful look in his eyes. There was something very endearing about the way he acted so uncertain around her. Reminded her of the first boy who'd kissed her when she was a young girl. "Then I guess you'll be calling that florist after all, won't you?" she said, not unkindly.

The corner of his mouth slanted upward. "Yeah, I guess so. You're not mad at me?"

"No, I'm not mad," she reassured him, bending over to kiss his left shoulder blade. He jerked slightly under her lips, so Kim sat back up and continued spreading the aloe. Not welcome, she interpreted as his reaction to her impulsive move.

By the third application, all of the muscles in his body appeared to have loosened, and his shallow breathing had evened out into a series of contented sighs and half- whimpers. His ass had improved too; the color was still visible, but the blazing heat had faded to lukewarm.

When she shifted her legs to slide off the bed, his head popped off the pillow.

"Where are you going?"

"I have to wash my hand. It's all sticky. You should go to sleep."

"But I..." He closed his eyes, his sooty lashes squeezing together in sync with his eyebrows knotting, then opened them to issue a green plea. "Will you come back when you're done in the bathroom?"

"Did you want me to put more on?" she asked, concerned she hadn't done enough.

"No, it feels great, thanks. It's just...I didn't get to wake you up this morning. I missed that -- you," he faltered, then gave her another shy smile. "I missed you."

Anytime she wanted to breathe again might be a good time.

Or maybe she'd just sit here smiling foolishly at him for a minute longer.

"I'll be right back."

It was only due to reminding herself she was a grown woman, with bills to pay and all her front teeth accounted for, that she managed not to skip into the bathroom.

When she exited a few minutes later, she noted that Alex had rolled under the thick navy blue comforter, so she unzipped her sweatshirt and dropped it on the floor by the bed, then quickly removed her jeans and socks before scrambling underneath with him. She gave a half-second of consideration to removing her camisole-style t-shirt and panties, but tossed aside the idea. He'd rejected her overture once already, and she still felt too jumpy and tensed to want to risk a second slap down.

Besides, without Walter there with them, there wasn't any chance Alex would do more than cuddle; Kim hadn't the faintest idea why, but Alex had never made love to her, one on one, in the five months they'd been sharing the same bed. Even when Walter completed their trio, Kim could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times Alex had been inside her. Each encounter was seared into her memory; he might act uncertain and timid when they were alone, but as a lover in a threesome, Alex was a force to be reckoned with. The combination of he and Walter together were a lethal mix; there were nights Kim was positive she would die, and happily so, from the pleasure. Unless they considered a peak to be as high as Mount Everest, then whoever said that women reach their sexual peaks in their thirties had either grossly understated the facts of life, or had never met Alex Krycek and Walter Skinner.

But just she and Alex, alone, naked, and aroused? Hadn't happened. It wouldn't now, either; of that much she was certain. Kim didn't mind as much as she probably should. In truth, she was as equally unprepared to jump his bones, demanding that he screw her senseless, as he was to do it. Her own lack of sexual aggression toward Alex surprised her, but she hadn't tried to worry out the cause yet. Instead, she wrote it off as one more thing in the long line of contradictory pieces of Alex Krycek, and the jumbled-up way he made her feel.

He lay on his side, and lifted his good arm up and over her shoulder as she snuggled up close. Like a last piece of a puzzle, his mouth connected to hers the second they made the final contact of bumping knees. Alex had lips like cotton candy, she thought dreamily. Pink and soft and sweet. She swiped her tongue across his upper lip for another taste, emitting a breathy sigh of pleasure when she felt his tongue reach tentatively for hers.

While she yearned to take their relationship to the next step, Kim had to admit there was an undeniable appeal to simply necking like two innocent teenagers. After she'd introduced her lovers to Mel a few weeks back, Alex had taken her to the movies as he'd promised. When they'd emerged from the darkened theater, Kim's lips had been pleasantly swollen, and she was hard-pressed to recall one scene from the film they'd supposedly watched. How a man as dangerously sexy as Alex Krycek managed to make her feel like a virginal high-school girl astounded her; it had been a long, long time since all she'd done on a date was indulge in a marathon make-out session.

Leaning her head back so she could see Alex's face clearly, she slid her hand down the sleek muscles of his back, stopping just shy of where his cheek began its seductive curve. "Does it feel any better?" she whispered.

"Yeah, it's fine. Thanks for putting that stuff on it."

"Do you want to me to put on some more?"

A flash of green fire appeared under his lush lashes, then disappeared as he twisted his neck toward his back. "No, it's okay. My butt doesn't smell like peaches, does it?"

"No. It was aloe. No smell," she answered, unsure why he seemed suddenly uncomfortable. "Alex?"

"Hmm?" He'd nestled back onto his pillow, seemingly engrossed in her left earlobe.

"Did I do something wrong?"

"No, it's fi-..." He stopped his restless hand and eye dance, sighing. "You didn't do anything wrong, Kim."

"Then what's the matter?"

Another guarded sigh.

"It won't make any sense," he warned.

"Very little you do makes any sense to me," she said, fitting her hand in the space between the cotton pillowcase and the roughened stubble of his cheek. "I've got a three- ring binder at home labeled Things I Don't Understand Yet About Alex Krycek."

His wry smile spread into her palm. "My file on you is color-coordinated and tabbed."

"Touch,," she conceded. "Tell me anyway."

He looked at her for a long beat before replying, seeking something unfathomable in her expression.

"Okay. First off, I want you to know I do really appreciate you coming in here and being so nice to me. I'm sorry if I was short with you when you came in. I've been doing this for a while now, and you've never been around. So I didn't expect you this time, and it caught me off-guard."

Kim thought about apologizing for her part in their initial awkwardness, or pointing out that he hadn't been short, but kept her silence. Alex was talking, instead of acting stand-offish, and she didn't want to break his rhythm.

"Second, the aloe did cool the burning sensation," he continued. Maybe it was the dim light, but he seemed strangely embarrassed. "I'm very touched that you wanted to help me. But here's the thing: while I'm grateful you did that, I kind of wish you hadn't."

Her forehead wrinkled. "Okay, you were right. That doesn't make any sense."

"Told you so," he said in a soft lilt.

"Do...do you want me to go?" she offered, praying he declined.

His fingers, which had been toying with the strap of her camisole, drifted down toward the small of her back, where he splayed them against the cotton.

"Yes and no," he admitted. His arm banded like steel around her, keeping her locked into place when she tried to get up. "Please, let me explain."

Kim forced her muscles to relax. "Okay," she agreed, more for her own benefit than his.

"Okay. See, I come up here to think about what I've done. I want to concentrate on the pain, so I won't forget my mistake and end up doing it again. Hot-butting does hurt, Kim, but it's not unbearable. I've been hurt a lot worse. And afterward, when Walter comforts me..." he trailed off, and sighed. "That feels great. But I'm afraid that I'll forget too soon the lesson he's trying to instill. I don't want that to happen."

"So, you come up here to suffer in silence?"

"Yes. I know I scared you and Walter badly by disappearing and not coming home. I never meant to do that, and I'm so sorry. And if I can't remember how much I worried you, I'm afraid I'll do it again. If I keep messing up, eventually Walter won't forgive me, and then you two will ask me to leave. I can't let that happen. I came so close to losing you and Walter this weekend, it terrifies me."

"We almost lost you too, Alex," she interjected.

"I know. I'm so sorry for worrying you--"

"So what makes our concern any different than yours? Why is it okay for you to continue beating yourself up for what happened, but we're supposed to forgive and move on? Isn't that the point of hot-butting?"

The whole thing was making less and less sense to Kim. Trying to compare what he was saying versus what limited understanding she had about discipline didn't mesh.

Alex appeared to be in a similar dilemma. Confusion knit his eyebrows together. "Well, yeah."

"Then why do you keep doing it? Walter's told me repeatedly that when the punishment is over, it's over. But that's not what you're doing. I don't think this is the way it's supposed to work."

"He doesn't know about this," Alex confessed. "I don't want him to. But I don't know how else to make the lesson stick." He lifted his hand, brushing his fingers across her temple. "There's only so much forgiveness I can ask for. What if Walter gets tired of giving it to me?"

"That won't happen," she assured him. "That's not how it works. Emotions don't come from a well, where eventually you get to the bottom and there's nothing left. There's an endless supply, and all they do is grow exponentially, the more you love someone."

The imprint of the snow-light flickering across his delicate features made Alex look almost...fragile. "What about you, Kim? You've never said it, you know."

Her breath caught in her throat. Surely he wasn't asking...

"Maybe my motivations aren't only because I want to make the lesson stick," he mused, his voice husky with vulnerability. "I think...maybe I want the pain to continue so I can try to make amends to you. I don't know what to do to make you understand how sorry I am. I'm really trying to do like you asked, but...taking you out on dates and spending time with you...it's not punishment. Punishment is supposed to hurt, and you..."

"You want me to discipline you? Physically?" Her stomach lurched at the idea. Doing it at Christmas had been so much harder than she'd thought it would be.

"No. Yes. Jesus, I don't know. I know you said you wouldn't, and I suppose I can live with that. But this other way...it doesn't do any good. We go out, and it's fun and interesting and I like being with you, but it...it feels unfinished. I keep waiting, but it doesn't happen. You never say that you...I don't know if you...I want..." He closed his eyes, his voice raw. "I need to know that you forgive me."

How hard was that for him to reveal, Kim marveled, watching his Adam's apple bob in his throat reflexively. His ability to lay his soul bare, at the most unexpected of times, awed and inspired her.

Fragments of a conversation between she and Walter, which had taken place after she told him what had happened at Christmas, flit into her brain. He'd asked her if she had comforted Alex afterward, and Kim had had to admit that she hadn't, or at least not very well. Walter had gone on to explain that the post-discipline discussion was almost more important than the spanking itself. That Alex needed to hear and to feel that he was forgiven, and loved, no matter what. Kim was ashamed to realize she hadn't done any of that.

She had just made the same mistake again.

"Alex." She cradled his face in both her hands, tilting it so she could kiss his damp lashes. "I do forgive you."

His eyelids fluttered open, the pitch black of his lashes offsetting the softer green within. "For...for disappearing this weekend?"

It took her a moment to grasp what his tremulous tone implied, what he couldn't bring himself to voice. Not even his singular brand of courage would permit him to make that leap of faith.

"For everything," she answered, swallowing back her own tears, as she finally began to understand.

His request that she stay during discipline had tickled in the back of her brain for months; she'd never been able to figure out why he would want such a thing. At first, she had assumed he was trying to scare her off, so she'd planted her feet and stuck with it, despite her reservations. But suddenly she knew that she'd made a horrible error in judgment, pretending that she wasn't involved. Ignoring what her eyes showed her, what she saw on Alex's face every damn time she watched him watch her during his spanking.

It was the same look he was giving her now.

See who I really am, he had been imploring her. Listen to my crimes, to the terrible acts I've committed, to the regret I feel. Watch me suffer for those sins. Then tell me it's okay, that you do forgive me, that I'm still the person you want to be with.

He had exposed himself to her, over and over again, displaying all of his weaknesses and his flaws and his torment. Her response? She had walked away, leaving him there like an open wound. He hadn't been only seeking Walter's forgiveness; he'd wanted hers, too.

In all likelihood, that was why he'd wanted her there from the beginning. It was the only way he knew to reach out to her. Walter had said earlier that she needed to break down Alex's wall, as he had had to do. It finally dawned on her that this cycle -- discipline, then forgiveness, then comfort and love -- was how Walter had done it. Alex had pushed her into that first step when he'd made his request, and Kim, lost in her ineptitude and her own needs, had skipped that all-important middle step, and headed straight for the last. It was time to back up and do it right.

"For everything, Alex," she repeated, staring at him until he understood. "From punching that bully on the playground when you were a kid, to lying about what you were doing when I first met you, to running away on Friday, and everything in between."

"Kim..." he breathed.

She squeezed his face between her hands. "My turn to talk."

The faintest of smiles crossed his lips.

"I forgive you for everything. And I'll keep on forgiving you, no matter what. I won't spank you, but I'll be there when you are. And I'll come to you afterward, and tell you that it doesn't change anything, that I still care about you and forgive you. I'm sorry I never told you that before. I...I didn't think it mattered so much to you. I didn't think at all. I guess...I was trying to distance myself from your agreement with Walter. Trying to make myself believe it didn't have anything to do with me. I was wrong, and I'm very, very sorry."

"You're forgiven," he whispered, that faint smile reappearing at the edge of his mouth. It struck her that the relief washing over her at his words was precisely what he had been seeking from her.

"Nice feeling, isn't it?" His smile, a slow spread of lips over teeth, grew stronger as he watched her expression.

Kim couldn't contain her answering smile. "Yeah. Now I see what all the fuss is about. I'm sorry it took me so long to figure that out."

"S'ok. You're still forgiven."

"You are too."

They lay there for a long beat, their eyes locked together, their heads inches apart on the pillows. Under the covers, his hand, which had been motionless against her hip, meandered up her torso, resting momentarily on her shoulder.

"You could, ah, hot butt me, if you wanted," he offered. "When I screw up again, I mean." His fingers drifted toward her bicep, which he gently squeezed. "All those hours in the gym with Walter are paying off. I'll bet you could blister my ass next time."

"I can't," she said cautiously. Damn. Why did he want to talk about this? Couldn't they just move on to the comfort part?

"Why not? I can handle it, Kim. I'm not afraid of physical pain. I've handled much worse than a spanking."

From the wounded masculine pride on his face, Kim surmised that unless she handled the next part carefully, they were going to be right back at square one, mistrusting and apprehensive. She wasn't prepared to go that far backward.

"I know that. I think you're one of the bravest, strongest people I know, and I'm sorry if I've never told you that, either." She hesitated, wondering if she was about to go too far. He had made veiled references to it, twice, so she screwed up her resolve and plowed on ahead. "I know what happened to your arm, Alex. In Russia. I've...I read Mulder's report, and I pieced together the rest. What you survived...I know you'd rather not let me know, or see, but it doesn't make me think less of you. Quite the opposite. I think of your missing arm as a badge of courage."

Bolstered by the shocked gratitude in his eyes, she slid her hand under the pillow, and gently wrapped her fingers around his hidden stump for the first time. When he didn't flinch, she kept her hand pressed against his broken flesh.

"What bothers me the most about watching you get hot-butted is seeing any more physical trauma happen to you. I know you can handle it, Alex, but I can't. You're so strong, I know you can get through it. I'm not that way. It breaks my heart to watch you suffer. That's why I can't do it myself. I'm sorry if I'm letting you down, but I...I just can't do it."

For a long moment, Alex stared at her, his lips parted as if to speak. He would start to say something, then stop, and stare at her again. Waves of emotions crested over his face. Disbelief turned into belief, fear into pride, confusion into comprehension. As Kim watched the transformations, her toes curled into the sheets to stop her heart from tumbling over the cliff.

Then his hand laced into her hair, and he kissed her.

It wasn't like any of the other times he'd kissed her. This time, he kissed her the way he kissed Walter.

Full of possessiveness and confidence and passion, his tongue explored her mouth so thoroughly she was certain he was inspecting the scars from her childhood tonsillectomy. Her head was reeling from the welcome onslaught, and she did her damnedest to keep pace.

When he abruptly pulled his mouth away, Kim followed it with hers, hungry for more, before a combination of hormone overload, a sense of bad timing, and flat-out bewilderment, halted her greedy lips in their tracks.

"Thank you," he murmured between breaths, as his legs untwined from hers and he shifted his hips, leaving their upper bodies still touching. His fingers loosened against her nape, smoothing her hair in a repetitive motion.

"You're welcome." She concentrated on returning her breathing pattern back to normal, while her muddled brain cells scrambled to remember where the prior conversation had ended. "So it's okay then? If I don't--"

"Yeah, it's okay," he interrupted, smiling. "It's more than okay." He glanced down, to where her hand sat under his pillow, still holding onto his stump. "Guess I was being a macho jerk. It's just...you're the first girl -- sorry, woman -- since it happened. I mean, not that I haven't... I've been with..." He blew an exasperated breath. "I meant that you're the first who hasn't looked at me with pity, or left the room when you saw it."

"Well, I'll have to hunt down those foolish women and thank them," she said, in as light as a tone as she could muster. While what she really wanted to do was find them and shake them silly, Kim was vastly relieved to hear that there had at least been other women. Until that moment, she hadn't been able to lose her unvoiced fear that perhaps he wasn't attracted to her because of her sex, that he only got turned on when Walter was with them. Alex's passive- aggressive behavior up to now had made it impossible to decipher. Thank God, he'd finally given her a clue. "After all, they make me look like Mother Teresa by default."

A furrow between his brow appeared, and Kim moved her hand from under the pillow to stroke it away. "Alex, you're so damn gorgeous, if you didn't have at least one physical flaw, you'd intimidate the daylights out of me."

To her eternal confusion, he laughed.

"How do you do that?"

"Do what?"

"That. Everything. I swear, Kim, I think you've gotten me to feel every emotion known to man in the last half-hour. I've given up on trying to figure out what you're going to say next, or how I'm going to react."

"It's a gift," she smiled. "Some people know how to play the piano, I'm good at reading people's moods. You've been a tough nut to crack so far, but I think I'm getting the hang of it."

"Good," he exhaled out of his matching smile. "Spilling my guts is hard work. It'll be a lot easier if you can read my mind instead."

"I'll do my best."

Alex laughed again, and brushed a stray lock of hair off her forehead, his eyes scanning her face.

"So, now that we've untangled the reason I came up here, let's talk about why you did. And please explain it to me carefully, because I'm no match for your female intuition."

Kim decided not to correct his mistaken impression, preferring to keep the moment upbeat. "Well, Walter thinks he sent me up here for a nap, so please don't tell him otherwise."

His eyebrow cocked. "I'm not supposed to lie, you know."

"You don't have to lie. I'll fall asleep eventually, I think." She trailed her hand along his upper chest, tactilely memorizing the muscles and heat humming under his silky skin. So different physically from Walter, yet equally as strong. In some ways, Alex was even stronger than their mutual lover; Kim had learned over the years that bravery came in all shapes and sizes. "But that's not the real reason I agreed. I came up to ask you for a hug."

His eyes widened. "Me?"

"Yes, you. Do you see anyone else up here?" she challenged.

"No," he said with a snort, "but I didn't...ah, forget it. C'mere."

He encircled his arm around her shoulder, and Kim quickly nestled her head against his collarbone. It didn't take long for his warmth to seep through to her bones, her muscles loosening under his steady caress of fingertips. At her sigh, Alex drew her snugly against him, encompassing her in his gentle embrace.

Did Kevin ever experience this, she wondered as she ran her hands idly over Alex's heated skin. Had her brother ever had someone he could turn to for comfort, even once, in his too-short life? Kim searched her memory banks for any pictures of longhaired girlfriends calling or dropping by their house, and came up empty. She had one mental image of him dressing for his senior prom, when she had sat on Kevin's bed watching him fumble with his bowtie in the mirror over his bureau, but she had no idea who had been his date. Eighteen-year-old boys didn't clue their baby sisters into their love lives.

If Kevin had lived, he would now be a few years older than Walter. What path in life would he have taken? Married soon after returning from the war, as Walter had done? Unlike Walter, would he have had a passel of kids, maybe even expecting his first grandchild by now?

Kim smiled against Alex's neck at the idea. It was impossible to imagine her brother as settled down with a huge family, or even that he would be technically older than Walter. Despite some of their outward similarities, she never confused those two important males in her life. In Kim's mind, Kevin would forever be a teenager, while Walter was unequivocally a man.

It struck her then that Alex was more like Kevin than Walter ever could be. Both reckless and impulsive. Both driven by inner demons. Both capable of heart-wrenching tenderness. Both overly fond of leather jackets. And both treated her like she was special, someone to protect. To be fair, Walter had an over-protective Neanderthal side, too, but Alex took it to an extreme, just as he did everything. His passionate exuberance was one of the many things that Kim admired in his character, and often wished she could imitate.

"Kim?" Alex's husky voice broke through her reverie.

"Yeah?"

"What are you thinking about?" A noisy exhalation immediately followed, as if he was disgusted at himself for asking. "Never mind. You don't have to answer that."

She lifted her head up so it rested on the pillow next to his, catching a glimpse of the flickering slats of snow on the wall beyond his bare shoulder. A shimmering sense of peace rolled over her, bringing a long-taboo name effortlessly upward from where it lay in her heart.

"I was thinking that you remind me of my brother."

Alex's uneasy reaction made her regret her candor.

"Your brother," he repeated flatly. His hand, which had snaked under her shirt, stopped its haphazard movement across the base of her spine, and returned to his side. She couldn't interpret the mixed expression on his face, but he didn't look happy. She closed her eyes, kicking herself for her stupidity, yet again. What did she think telling Alex about Kevin was going to solve? She should have kept her big trap shut.

"I didn't know you have a brother," he said after a lengthy pause.

"Had," she corrected him softly. "He died when I was a little girl."

Lying so close in the bed, she could still feel the warmth of his skin, still hear the breathy flutter of his exhale, still smell his spicy Alex scent. If she shifted just a few short inches, she could be right back in his embrace, and she could forget ever bringing up this topic.

She didn't move. Couldn't.

Concern overrode all other emotions in Alex's voice. "How did it happen? Was he sick, or--"

"No, he was killed by a grenade. In Nam. He'd been in country six weeks." The words came out thickly through her dry throat. She'd hoped this would be easier than it was turning out to be, but she didn't know how to stop. "He was nineteen, my big brother...my...my hero. He...his name is on the Wall. Kevin Cook, killed April 13, 1970. P-panel 12W, row 130."

After another interminable silence, Alex leaned forward and stroked her head gently, waiting for her to open her eyes to look at him before speaking.

"No one has ever compared me to a hero before," he whispered.

"You...you didn't seem to like the comparison a minute ago," she replied, as his fingers carded repeatedly through her hair, soothing her trembling.

He gave her a wry smile. "Thought you meant you saw me as a sibling. It didn't do much for my ego. But that's not what you meant, was it?"

"No." She inched closer, back into his welcoming embrace. "I meant that you and Kevin have similar personalities. Sweet, with a little bit of a devilishness in you both."

"I'd like to hear about him, if you want to tell me," Alex offered, his eyes curious and pleased.

So she did. She told him about watching Kevin play basketball, and the time he woke her up in the middle of the night, so they could sneak outside and watch a lunar eclipse. About going for ice cream, and when she inevitably dropped her top-heavy cone with a creamy splat onto the sidewalk, Kevin had a second one ordered and in her hands before she could remember to cry.

As soon as she was wrapping up one story, Alex encouraged her to start a new one, raptly listening to her, and prompting her with interested questions, laughing at her descriptions. Since they were both about the same age, they had the same point of reference on a number of childhood memories. They'd both owned Big Wheels, and had watched the moon landing on TV, and had the same dislike of bell bottoms and plaid shirts with the hideous wing-like collars that had been all the rage in their grammar school photos.

While she talked, Kim shifted onto her back, still curled up close to Alex's shoulder. The comforter had slid down to their waists, and, with the heat from their body contact warming each other, neither felt the need to pull it back up. He had his head propped up on a couple of pillows, and was smiling down at her, his hand tracing slow circles along her belly, or up her bare arm. Maintaining contact with the gentlest of touches.

"I'm a little jealous," he confessed as she finished the ice cream tale. "I can't remember anything that happened when my parents were alive."

Kim debated. Alex didn't discuss his past, unless he was being hot-butted. She'd heard him mention his great-aunt before, but never his parents. "How old were you when--"

"Seven," he interrupted curtly. "I lived with my great-aunt after that."

His expression grew distant, and she wasn't sure how to ease his returning tension. Covering his straying hand with both of hers, she whispered, "Do you want to tell me what happened?"

He shook his head. "Another time." Looking back down at her, his eyes softened and crinkled up in a shy smile. "Maybe the next time I get spanked, we could do this again."

"I'd like that." Kim smiled, and rolled back onto her side, so she could snuggle up against him. As much as she was fighting it, she was beginning to feel the initial stages of drowsiness. "This is the first time I've felt this relaxed after a hot-butting."

"Doesn't...I thought Walter comforted you afterward," Alex frowned, his eyebrow crease re-emerging.

"Oh, he does. But it's different." She paused, searching for the right words. She didn't want him to misunderstand her again. "That's not the kind of relationship Walter and I have. He depends on me, and I like that. It makes me feel strong."

"That's how you make me feel. It's one of the nicest things about being with you," he remarked, his patented Alex-as- shy-schoolboy look in his eyes. "C'mere, let's get more comfortable so you can take that nap."

He shifted onto his back, wincing faintly as his butt bumped the mattress. When he rolled her so she lay sprawled across him, Kim wondered if he was even aware that his stump was out from under its hiding place, and was pleased to realize that he didn't seem to care. She contentedly leaned her head against his chest, and listened to his heartbeat, solid and true, thump against her ear.

A few quiet minutes later, his dexterous fingers massaging her scalp tore a whimper from the back of her throat.

"Too hard?"

"God, no," she moaned, resisting the desire to purr. She felt bathed in a heady mix of warmth, comfort, and security. No wonder Alex had been able to open up to her after she'd put the aloe on him; if he asked right now, Kim would gladly tell him every password to every classified file she knew. "S'perfect."

Her eyelids drooped as more fragments of her unease melted away under his soothing touch. Alex's velvet-and-smoke voice, as soft and unthreatening as the snow-light against the wall, completed the atmosphere of utter peace.

"Tell me another Kevin story?"

"Aren't I boring you by now?" she joked, her yawn cutting off her last word.

"Hardly," he chuckled. "You've already heard all kinds of stuff about me, but I really don't know much about you. This is the first time you've ever told me about your past. The furthest back you've ever gone are some college escapades with Melanie."

"Sorry. I...I don't really talk about Kevin that much. To anyone." She peeked up at him with a shy smile. "Besides Walter, you're the only person I've ever told these stories to, and I've never told him about dropping the ice cream."

Alex's shock slowly slid into a delighted grin. "Wow. Now I really want to hear another Kevin story. Another one Walter doesn't know, please."

"I don't have that many," she protested, as her heart clenched from the truth in that statement. Keep it light, she decided. "If I tell you all of them right now, whatever will we talk about on our next date?"

Even in the dim light, she could see Alex's eyes twinkling. "Maybe I'll tell you a couple of stories about me. Not everything I've done ends up as fodder for hot-butt time, you know." He gathered her hair together into a lopsided ponytail, then let the strands glide through his fingers. "Right now, though, I want to listen to you. I'm enjoying trying to picture you as a little girl."

"I was a terrible girl," she mumbled, tilting her head back down so he couldn't see her blush. "I forever had scraped knees, and mud under my fingernails. My mom would force me to wear a dress, and within an hour, I'd have a huge tear in the sleeve or grass stains on my fanny. I lost at least a dozen hair ribbons a month."

Alex's chest rumbled under her cheek. "Hmmm...you as a tomboy. I wouldn't have guessed that, but it kind of fits."

"Well, it's not me anymore," she replied, surprised at the wistful note in her tone. "My mom was determined to mold me into the perfect little lady. Once Kevin was gone, there wasn't anyone to run interference. Eventually, I gave in, and did whatever she wanted."

"Did she spank you?" His protectiveness curled around the edges of his question, and for a moment, Kim tried to imagine Alex crossing swords with her mother, before abandoning that ridiculous fantasy. It would never happen. Not even Walter or Alex stood a chance against Barbara Cook when she was in you-disappoint-me-Kimberly mode.

"No, she didn't. She didn't have to. She's the master of the cold shoulder, and the guilt trip. Besides, I'm not very good at rebelling. That was Kevin's forte."

She felt Alex's lips press against the top of her head. "Oh, I don't know about that, Kim. I see a lot of your brother's spirit in you."

"Oh, please," she laughed, "the most rebellious thing I ever did was run away when I was five. I barely made it to the end of my street."

"Kim, you're lying in bed with a one-armed ex-assassin with a thoroughly-spanked ass. I may not know much about being ladylike, but somehow I doubt this is considered good form." He snorted. "Not to mention the fact that most nights there are three people in this very bed. I'd say that's pretty damn rebellious, wouldn't you?"

She lifted her head to see Alex grinning cockily at her stunned expression.

Hard to argue with that.

"For someone who claims not to understand me very well, you certainly hit the proverbial nail on the head with that observation," she remarked once her shock waned. "Wow. Nicely done, Alex."

"Thanks," he replied, sounding very pleased with himself. "I've been racking my brain for five months trying to figure you out, and I've been dead wrong 99% of the time. It's a relief to finally get something right with you."

"Oh, you get a lot of things right," she murmured, snuggling back into his embrace. "So, you really think I'm like Kevin?"

"Definitely. Not just his rebellious side, either. From what you've been describing, your brother sounds like someone who looked out for and took care of the person he loved. You." Alex paused to tighten his hold around her shoulders, squeezing her to him. "That same compassion and kindness are the qualities I admire most about you."

Hot, sudden tears threatened to spill from Kim's eyes, and she blinked rapidly in an effort to push them back. Big girls don't cry, whispered a five-year-old voice.

"Do...do you think he'd be proud of me?" she said, her adult voice wavering. "I think he's very proud of his little sister," Alex answered, and kissed her temple. "She's grown up to become the most amazing woman I know."

She opened her eyes wide enough to see a pair of steady green ones centimeters away, watching her intently. He was so close to her, in every way imaginable, that she believed he could probably see every crevice in her aching heart, in all the dark corners she tried to pretend didn't exist.

"I miss him," she whispered, her voice clotted with misery. "I was so young...and then he was gone..." She clamped her eyes and her mouth shut. Don't do this. Don't re-open this wound.

The tears burned as they leaked a path down the side of her nose, and Kim brushed them away as they escaped, her fingers moving faster and faster as their speed increased. After a silent moment, Alex stilled her trembling hand with his, and guided her arm up so she would wrap it around his neck. He cradled her into the crook of his ruined arm, and caressed her steadily with his lone hand.

"It's okay, sweetheart." His voice flowed through her like honey into a pot of tea, cutting the edge off the bitter taste. "It's okay to cry."

"No...I don't..."

"It's okay, Kim. Just let go."

Why was this so hard to do? Why was she fighting so hard against the thing she yearned for?

A deep-seated sob tore from her lungs. "I...miss him so much," she rasped. "It's so silly, he's been gone for so long. It...it shouldn't hurt this much. I just..." Her words dissolved into a teary puddle.

"Just what, Kim?" Alex encouraged her, his gravelly voice smooth against her ear. Kim mutely shook her head against his shoulder, in one final effort to stay in control.

In hindsight, Alex most likely shifted only to get a better grip on her, but Kim didn't realize it at the time. All she knew was that he moved away from her. He left her. That small movement was all it took to crumble her defenses.

"No! Don't leave," she begged, her tears flowing unchecked as the storm crashed. She clung to Alex's neck, weeping piteously, and he immediately reversed his direction, and held onto her in a vice grip.

"Please don't go, Alex. I can't...I can't do it again. I can't..."

"I'm right here, Kim. I'm not going anywhere," he whispered, but she could barely hear him over her racking sobs. "I won't leave you."

His reassurances only made her clutch at him harder.

Kevin had said that to her, too, the night he left for boot camp. He'd promised her it was only for a little while, and that he would come back at the end of his tour. He even made her a calendar so she could cross off the days until he returned. A special calendar, with thirteen months instead of twelve. Even after the telegram came, Kim dutifully marked off every box, and had waited for hours at the front door on the last one that he had circled in a bold red marker. Not understanding what death was, she fully expected Kevin would keep his promise to come home.

She dragged that calendar around the house for days before reality set in. Her mother grew so annoyed she threw the dog-eared booklet away. Kim had to wait until everyone had gone to bed to dig it out of the trash, patiently smoothing the creases out with her small hands and placing it under her mattress for safekeeping. Using a flashlight under her bed covers, she used to take it out at night, and look at all the events they had missed spending together. The first day of spring. Her sixth birthday. Watching fireworks on the Fourth of July. His twentieth birthday. Christmas.

As the years unfolded after his death, and Kim kept the habit of marking boxes off of newer, regular calendars, she came to see what a short time she had had with Kevin. Only five years, and during most of them she was only a toddler, too young to remember any details.

Lack of time was her greatest fear. It was what her life revolved around. Her primary job at the Bureau involved making sure everything got done on time. Walter jokingly called her Mussolini, for her determination to keep the trains, and meetings, on schedule. Her personal address book bulged with an ungodly number of names; among her friends, her ability to maintain relationships through job changes and moves was legendary. Once someone entered her life, Kim did her damnedest to make sure they stayed. She was not prepared to run out of time with anyone else.

The pattern hadn't changed when she had embarked on this relationship with Walter and Alex. She'd been living out of her car for months, frantic about wasting even a minute away from her lovers. She'd had so little true happiness in her life, when she finally found it, the thought of it going away too soon paralyzed her.

Alex's disappearance had escalated her silent terrors, where they had sat bubbling just under the surface until now. Captured in the safety of his embrace, lulled by the tranquil atmosphere, exhausted from her sleepless nights, Kim finally grasped why Kevin had been a constant presence in her thoughts since Friday.

She hadn't had enough time with Kevin, and she was terrified the same thing was going to occur with Alex. If he had truly vanished on Friday, or if they had found him in one of those cold, sterile morgues, then all she would have had to remember of him was the last few brief months.

Not enough time.

"Oh God, Kim," she heard Alex gasp, "I'm so sorry."

It was only then that she realized she'd been speaking out loud the entire time. "Please don't go, Alex. I need you so much," she pleaded, clinging to his neck with all her might.

"Sssh, it's okay. I won't. I need you, too. I swear, Kim, I won't leave again." Alex repeated the words over and over like a mantra, until they were drummed into her head, as hard as her heart was pounding. He held her firmly against him, and she simply lost herself in the strength of him and let it all go. Let go of all the tension and the hurt and the sorrow and the regret and the final vestiges of fear. She hadn't cried this hard in a long, long time.

Alex was with her through every fallen teardrop. He was everywhere, every inch of his body touching hers, soothing her. A full-body Alex hug. Protecting her and supporting her with his voice and his hand and his heart.

When her tear ducts ran out of available moisture, he was still there. Thank God. Her head drooped against his shoulder, and he rocked her for a long minute, whispering reassurances in her ear.

As her trembling faded and she collapsed against him, boneless and spent, he asked, "You okay?"

"Yeah," she hiccupped out, and a final shudder escaped her body, letting the last sob free.

He kissed the side of her head, his arm still banded around her. "I'm so sorry, Kim. I didn't realize how deep an impact my stunt on Friday would have on you, or I wouldn't have done it."

"S'okay," she said, loosening her grip on his neck to wipe her drenched face. The look of self-reproach in his eyes made her pause. "Don't, Alex. You didn't even know of Kevin's existence before today. It's not your fault in the slightest. I should have told you what was bothering me. And how important you are to me."

"You're important to me too, sweetheart." His fingers joined hers in the task of cleaning up, then his lips dried the last of her tears with a series of soft kisses. Kim tried to shrink away, knowing how puffy and red her face had to be, but every time she turned her head, his mouth connected to her skin or her lips.

"I'm a mess," she murmured.

"You're beautiful," he insisted, and kissed her again. His blatant concern held her still, and she felt her body melt under his tender pressure. "Besides, if anyone knows the pleasure and value in being comforted after a therapeutic cry, it's me."

The rueful smile on his face matched the one in his eyes. Kim gave a little laugh, and put a shaking hand on his left shoulder, to wipe the excessive moisture away. His eyes tracked her movements.

"Looks like I finally found a good use for the damn thing," he remarked, and her gaze flew to his. "I'd rather be able to hold you with both arms, but having two shoulders for you to cry on is a compromise I can live with."

"Oh, Alex..." She bent her head to brush a kiss on his collarbone, lapping up her tears pooling in the hollow. His pulse point beat steadily under her lips when she reached his throat, and by the time she got to his jaw, his mouth was waiting to capture hers in a tender kiss. She curled her arms around his neck again, not in fear this time, but in want. The third stage was finally here, and much to her amazement, he needed it as much as she did.

"Thank you, Alex," she said as his warm breath trailed along her neck. "That was exactly what I needed."

"So I did it right?"

"Oh yeah." She nuzzled the hair at his temple. "You did it perfectly."

"Good. I don't have a lot of practice at being Walter."

She tugged his head back so their eyes met. "I have a Walter in my life, and I like the one I've got. I'm not really interested in trading him in. What I needed - what I need - is an Alex."

"You've got one, then," he said, his voice halfway between a growl and a laugh. They kissed again, a delicious combination of desire and relief and contentment flowing from her mouth to his.

Like the bubbles from a champagne bottle that uncorks with a loud pop and spills out messily, Kim's energy had dissipated, and left behind a flat, drained feeling. When she struggled to open her puffy eyelids, Alex gently cradled her head back against his neck, and freed his hand long enough to tug the comforter back up to her chin.

"And now, sweet girl, it's time for that nap."

"I'm not tired," she mumbled, nestling instinctively into him.

"Yeah, I see that," he said dryly.

A small giggle escaped her. "Mmm. 'Kay, maybe a little."

His arm dug under the covers and wrapped itself around her shoulders, anchoring her. As she drifted off, feeling his warm, solid body against hers, one of her last coherent thoughts was that this had been a lot more satisfying than a peanut-butter-and-Fluff sandwich.

He kept talking as she slipped into sleep, his words echoing through her like hope.

"You're so brave, Kim. I think you're extraordinary, strong and smart and lovely, and no one is ever going to leave you again. Not Walter, and not me. You've got all the time in the world now. With both of us."

With them. She liked that.

When she woke up, the room was fully dark, making it impossible to see anything. Must already be nighttime, she thought groggily, trying to get her bearings. At some point, she must have flipped over, because she could feel a warm body spooned against her back. A heavy arm was draped over her waist, but it constricted around her automatically when she shifted. The slow rhythm of a chest rising and falling against her spine told her Alex was fast asleep.

Kim stretched her arms out to the other side of the bed, and the heels of her palms bumped into a solid mass.

Walter's warm hands covered hers in the dark.

"Hi," she whispered under her breath, her smile instantaneous.

"Hi." She heard the smile in his ultra-quiet response.

The covers rustled as he shifted closer, and Kim was soon sandwiched between two firm, naked bodies. Heavenly.

"Feeling better?"

"Mmm, oh yeah." Her hand lifted to the vicinity of his voice, and she found his familiar face in the dark, stroking his jaw lazily.

"Got some Fluff downstairs," he murmured.

"Thanks. I'm okay, honey. I don't need it anymore." Under her fingers, the worry released from his expression, stretching his mouth into a smile of pure happiness. The sensation rippled through her palm, spreading and warming her from head to toe. From back to front.

"I've got everything I need right here," she finished, when Alex stirred, his voice a delicious combination of sleep- roughened and schoolboy-eager.

"Me, too."

She felt Walter's large hand ruffle her hair, then reach across to do the same to Alex's.

"Me, three," he echoed.

Oh yeah, she was home.

As she slid back into slumber, a long-unheard tenor voice permeated her fading consciousness. "Yes, you are, snicker doodle," she thought she heard Kevin whisper.

She fell asleep, the grin plastered to her face.


By the time he heard Kim's quiet snore for the second time of the afternoon, Alex wasn't sure which was worse: moving his body away from her, or keeping it in place.

On a practical level, the lack of movement over the last few hours was taking its toll. His ass was still sore, he had a crick in his neck, and he really needed to stretch his legs. Yet he couldn't bring himself to leave her side. Once he was satisfied that she was well and truly asleep, he had allowed his body to succumb to a short nap, only waking up momentarily when Walter had joined them, and again right now.

But if he left, even momentarily, and her reaction was a sliver of what had happened earlier, he didn't think he'd survive it a second time. He used to worry about what on earth he would do if she ever wept in front of him, but never in his worst nightmares had it turned out as it had. A few girlish sniffles, a tear or two sliding down her cheek. Those he figured he could handle. It was all he'd ever seen her do before.

Not a violent, ferocious explosion of grief. No, it was safe to say he had never expected that. Worse was knowing that he in some small way had triggered it. Kim's painful breakdown haunted Alex. Her heartbroken cries still rang in his ears, and the memory of her hot tears burned like acid on his shoulder. No stranger to holding back his tears until they reached boiling point, he had watched her struggle, and her anguish had nearly broken him.

He sure as hell couldn't watch it happen ever again.

He should go. Just sneak out of the bed, grab his clothes and his coat, and flee. Walter and Kim were both sleeping by now, so they wouldn't notice until he was three states away. This time he wouldn't chicken out before getting on the plane, and end up drowning his sorrows in a bar, as he had this weekend. They'd be okay without him. They could comfort each other in his absence, if they even bothered to miss him after he'd lied to their faces about sticking around.

"It's a big responsibility, having someone depend on you," Walter remarked across the inky darkness, his voice barely above a whisper, yet no less compelling.

There went his escape plan. He had to admit he wasn't all that sorry to see it go.

Alex considered Walter's comment, and the truth behind his quiet words. What was twisting his heart into a pretzel was the vivid memory of his sweet, grieving girl clinging to him, her palpable need and his subsequent fears stripped down to their essence. She needed him, as simple as that. And while he wanted to slay dragons for her, to be the hero that her brother had been, the knowledge that she wanted the same thing scared the pants off him.

Jesus. What was she thinking, relying on him? Didn't she understand what a hopeless screw-up he was? Mulder had called him once 'an invertebrate scum-sucker whose moral dipstick was about two drops short of bone dry', words to this day Alex recalled with bitter precision. Why the hell didn't Kim see him for who he was?

"The rewards are even bigger, Alex," Walter said in his familiar, loving voice. The voice of experience.

Alex dipped his head in silent hope that Walter was right. His lips came into contact with the top of Kim's head, and in unconscious response, she nestled deeper into his embrace, her soft hair brushing against his stump with a careless grace. The complicated pretzel of his heart twisted into another knot.

There wasn't really any choice at all, was there? He could try to deny it all he wanted to, but he wanted this. He needed it. He needed them.

The strangest part of it all was how honored he felt that Kim needed him. Why she chose him to lean on in her grief, instead of Walter, he'd never know, but it didn't diminish the fact that she had chosen him.

The sound of three individual breathing patterns reminded Alex that he, too, had someone to lean on. Someone who loved him, and who loved the woman sleeping peacefully between them.

"Don't let me fuck this up, Walter."

He felt a large, warm hand reach across and grasp the nape of his neck in encouragement.

"Not to worry, Alex. I've got your back covered."

"My ass, you mean," he wisecracked, masking his relief that Walter was there. Maybe this was what his lover had meant, when he'd said the rewards were bigger than the responsibility. With Kim nestled against his chest, and Walter's hand firmly on him, Alex couldn't remember a time when he'd felt more complete.

Walter gave a low laugh, squeezing his neck to indicate he hadn't missed the hidden emotion in Alex's tone.

"Yeah, that too."

THE END


Hope you liked it! Please send feedback to... Kristen K2 ()


If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to Kristen K2