Anthony Book Two

Title: Anthony, Book Two
Author: Clare Skinner
Written: October 1996

Summary: Anthony and Walt Skinner slowly adjust to life without Clare. But as Walt struggles to regain his equilibrium, will he lapse into complacency and fail to remember the danger that still abounds?

Book Two contains the next four segments of my Anthony series, all of which have been revised. This Book continues the alternate universe series about AD Skinner and his son and contains passages of sex, some much more explicit than others. The stories are rated as such:

  • Small World: R
  • The Healing Power of Time: NC-17
  • Old Habits: NC-17
  • Final Frontier: R

Flashbacks are indicated by the following characters: + + + + + + at the beginning and end of the sequence.

Again, much thanks to Elizabeth, my Beta Reader, whose advice, questions and comments have made this saga stronger.

The X-Files and its characters are copyrighted by Chris Carter, Ten Thirteen Productions and 20th Century Fox Television; all other characters were created by me.


Anthony, Book Two: Small World
Author: Clare Skinner
Written: October 1996

Summary: Skinner and his son Anthony deal with their grief and make some new friends.

Monday, November 4, 1996

Walter Skinner was sitting in his office, attempting to read through the synopsis of cases for the last few weeks. He was getting practically nowhere with Jennings' report and put it down after staring at it for 10 minutes. He swiveled his chair and turned his attention to the credenza. Walt felt a pang of sorrow as he gazed at the photo of Clare, Anthony and himself.

The photo was far from a posed, professional shot. Darryl had taken it of them in the backyard, when Walt had tried to show Anthony and Elliot some wrestling moves. Walt had needed a partner and Darryl had shied away. Anthony had thought it natural for Clare to volunteer based on her earlier 'lessons,' even if nobody else had thought it had been.

Darryl had snapped the picture just after Clare had pinned Walt in a double grapevine maneuver and she was holding his arms away from his body, with a little help from Anthony. Walt's expression was one of pleasant surprise, Clare's was humorous triumph and Anthony's was plain happiness.

It made Walt smile every time he looked at it -- which so far today had been more than he'd been looking over work.

It was his first day back and Ned McIntire, aka the director of the FBI, had reprimanded him for coming back so soon. McIntire had told him to take a full month to get everything taken care of. He'd even threatened to have Walt bodily removed if he turned up sooner than that, but Walt couldn't stand the silence and loneliness of the days while Anthony was in school.

He'd spent the morning in a series of meetings and had noticed himself drifting off several times. It wasn't the slightest bit easier, dealing with Clare's death for the second time. He didn't feel nearly as alone, but that hardly reduced the pain. And now he had to be concerned with how Anthony was dealing with it -- so far, he wasn't sure either of them were doing very well.

The change in his loving, outgoing independent son was breaking his heart. Anthony was clingy, moody and introverted. Walt hoped that by constantly reassuring Anthony of his love and commitment that he could bring him back to his former self -- but he knew it would take time.

He wished that the three of them had had more time together. Walt had been relaxed and reasonably confident as a father while Clare was present, but now he wasn't as sure of his abilities as a single father. He didn't like the off-balance feeling and doubted that his inexperience was doing either of them much good.

Walt gazed at the photograph once more, letting his mind stray back to the night of Clare's real death. According to the autopsy, there had been three ruptures in the artery.

Anthony had cried nonstop for half an hour, only ceasing when he had no more tears in him. Walt had held and gently rocked him the whole time. Then he'd carried his son to the bathroom and soothed his hot, swollen red face with a cool washcloth. Walt had left him there while he'd gone to make the phone call.

He'd been struck with how beautiful and peaceful Clare had looked in repose as he spoke softly into the phone. Walt had known he should have called the relevant authorities immediately, but he'd waited. Waited long enough for Anthony to calm down. His son had still have time to sit on the bed next to her, hold her hand, say good-bye before her body had been taken away.

Few actual words had been exchanged between Walt and the police when they'd removed Clare's body in front of Anthony. Walt hadn't wanted him to watch, but Anthony wouldn't leave his side and he'd had no choice.

He remembered holding Anthony's huddled form close to his body in the tiny single bed and getting no sleep as Anthony slept fitfully, crying out and whimpering the rest of the night. Only Elliot's presence later that day had managed to spark the tiniest amount of life back into him... and that had disappeared when he'd gone back to Boston.

Walt had decided to hold the funeral service in Grinnell; it had made the most sense. Not many people had attended the service in DC seven years earlier, both he and Clare having gathered many acquaintances but only a few friends.

This time, it seemed as if most of the town had turned out to say good-bye. Clare's co-workers had been indispensable telling him who everyone was.

Walt had felt proud of how well-liked Clare -- 'Trish' -- had been. He'd listened to story after story of how she'd helped people, raised money, donated time and resources to charity and other good causes.

If ever someone had turned their life around, it had been Clare. And while Walt didn't consider himself a religious man, he hoped that her genuinely selfless acts had caught the attention of someone upstairs.

Every bit as surprising to him was the support he had received -- and in many ways was still receiving. Kimberly, his assistant, must have notified everyone within HQ because cards, flowers and charitable donations had poured in over the initial three-day period. The appearance of Scully, Mulder and McIntire at the service had almost bowled him over. He'd even gotten a telegram from the President and the First Lady expressing regret over his loss.

The support had helped greatly and he'd taken the time to thank everyone -- but now he wished things would return to normal. He'd assumed that his subordinates had felt obligated to show their loyalty, but had found out that wasn't the case. He was used to commanding respect and a certain amount of fear from them; pity, sorrow and compassion were reactions he wasn't prepared to deal with. And so he kept his colleagues at a distance, falling back into his safe supervisory role.

Walt looked at his watch and noted that it was nearly time to pick Anthony up from school. He was dreading the two interviews he'd lined up for the afternoon. Finding someone to take care of the house hadn't been a problem; finding someone to watch Anthony until he got home from work was.

He'd reluctantly taken Clare's advice and given Anthony permission to read the applicants' minds to assist in the selection process. Walt hadn't been comfortable with the decision, but so far, Anthony had eliminated two candidates who'd looked good on paper and brilliantly faked their way through the interview.

He had wrongly assumed that making his job known to the placing agency, and therefore the candidates, would cut down on the weirdos, but it actually seemed to have increased them. Walt had only gotten to the point of doing three background checks because he'd disliked the other 15 applicants that Anthony hadn't spoken against.

Walt wondered again if Mary Poppins was available as he pulled on his coat and left for the day.

Walt got to the school early and leaned against the hood of the car, waiting.

They say it takes longer to break a habit than it does to learn a new one. In some ways he believed that, and in other ways, he didn't. There hadn't been a woman in his bed on anything approaching a nightly basis for a long, long time. Yet he'd fallen so easily back into sharing a bed with Clare. During their not quite two weeks together, he'd slept better than he had in years. Sweet, contented, sound sleep -- except for the final night. Getting used to her absence was terrible.

Not that he'd been alone for long. Anthony had started the second night in his sleeping bag alongside Elliot, but he'd ended up with Walt, tearfully begging to be allowed to stay. He'd said that Mom had always allowed him to stay whenever he was sick and his stomach was all churned up. Clare's mother hadn't thought it a good idea, but Walt hadn't cared. If it made Anthony's grief more bearable, it was fine with him.

Walt had begun to wonder how long was too long, however. He'd been relieved when Anthony had decided to stay in his own bed over the weekend after they'd moved into their new house.

The elder Skinner had begun to notice a small change in Anthony and wasn't sure who or what was responsible. Walt suspected it had something to do with Anthony's making a friend at school, and thereby not really being quite so dependent on him any more. He almost felt jealous.

School had been a hassle all its own. Walt had told the realtor he wanted to limit the house search to areas with excellent schools, ones that offered programs for gifted students... which was how they'd ended up in New Carrollton, Maryland. Unfortunately, they'd insisted on retesting Anthony and given Walt the startling news that according to the results, Anthony placed at the fifth-grade level. It appeared that his gifted son had an IQ of 153, information that Walt had discovered was listed on the transcripts from the Iowa school. He supposed he couldn't blame Clare for fudging their son's intelligence.

The principal of the school couldn't understand why Walt had been adamant about keeping Anthony in second grade, but Walt had had visions of Anthony becoming 'Doogie Howser' and wanted his son to have as normal a childhood as was possible without Clare.

After a week, however, he'd relented and allowed Anthony to be moved into third grade. Walt wasn't entirely sure if the move was the right choice and understood the difficulty Clare must have faced in choosing a grade for him.

Walt was quickly realizing that Anthony was far more like him than he would have preferred -- Anthony was burying his feelings and thoughts. Walt hoped it would stop now that he'd become friends with a boy named Ben Wright. Apparently Ben spoke with a hint of a British accent, had glasses, was a bit overweight and tended to be the butt of his classmates' jokes.

Walt hadn't met Ben yet, and although Anthony would talk about him when prompted, he seemed to be lacking in the details that the elder Skinner found necessary to know -- like where Ben lived, what his parents' names were, what they did for a living. The only information Walt had gathered was that Ben had two younger sisters and a nanny. And that was only because he'd seen all three of them meet Ben the previous Thursday and Friday.

Walt couldn't understand why Anthony was so hesitant to introduce him... especially after how he'd gone out of his way to present him to all his classmates in Iowa.

With his position, Walt could certainly acquire information about Anthony's new friend -- hell, even the phone book could give him some information -- but he wanted to give his son a chance to tell him.

Walt roused himself from his musings as the doors opened and he picked Anthony's form out of the throng. He watched with sadness as Anthony and Ben giggled before breaking apart and his son's smile disappeared.

Ben went happily running toward a tall, medium-built blond man who was standing with the two small girls. They all had the same wavy hair, even if the colors crossed the spectrum. Walt wondered how long they'd been standing there and assumed this would be the perfect time to make introductions... but Anthony vetoed the idea when he reached him.

"Hi, Dad." His voice was quiet, introspective.

Walt knelt to look him more fully in the eye -- he knew better than to try to hug Anthony in front of the other children; he'd made that mistake once already. "How was school today?"

His son shrugged. "Fine." Anthony looked toward Ben as that group started to leave.

"Is that Ben's father with his sisters?" Anthony nodded. "Let's go over and you can introduce me."

Anthony grabbed his hand tightly and shook his head. "They have to be someplace soon."

Walt looked at Anthony with a raised eyebrow. Something was obviously going on and he didn't like being kept in the dark one bit -- but he swallowed and watched as the Wrights climbed into their minivan and drove off. Walt resolved to get to the bottom of whatever this was later. But right now, they also had an appointment to keep.

Walt sighed as he closed the door behind the second applicant. He leaned against the door and rubbed his eyes before weaving his way back into the living room. After ripping off the top sheet from his clipboard, crumpling it up and tossing it on the coffee table, he plopped onto the sofa next to Anthony.

"Dad, I'm not a baby, I'm mature enough to stay by myself."

The words that occasionally came out of Anthony's mouth amazed Walt. "It's not a matter of 'mature,' Anthony. You're simply too young and I refuse to allow my son to be a latch-key kid. My boss said I can continue to leave early until we find someone we both trust." McIntire actually had said it, but he'd also hinted that Walt should have taken care of that prior to returning to work.

"I'm hungry, what's for dinner?" Anthony queried.

Walt shrugged, thinking there still was next to no food in the house -- they'd eaten take-out three nights running. "We can't put off going to the grocery store any longer. Let's go."

Walt paused at the produce section and absently looked over the apples. There were quite a few varieties with their being in season. Anthony preferred Red Delicious, just like Clare. Walt grabbed a few and dropped them into a bag as his mind wandered back seven years.

+ + + + + +

Tuesday, June 6, 1989

Walt casually stepped from his car, his eyes glued to a particular tall, attractive, auburn-haired young woman. She was dressed in baggy jeans and he was disappointed that they hid so much of her form. He did smack his lips as she shoved a wallet into one front pocket and keys in the other -- the effect tightened the fabric in the back. He proceeded to tail her as she entered the produce section where she carefully selected a few Red Delicious apples and placed them in a bag. She also glanced sideways at his presence and arched an eyebrow at the grin on his face.

"Can I help you?" she inquired.

"Just curious about your choice of apple. I've never really found that variety to be very flavorful."

Her eyes narrowed. "Uh huh. And do you always feel compelled to share your opinions," her eyes flashed devilishly, "with women in the grocery store?"

His own eyes gleamed back at her and he decided to play the game some more as she moved a few feet down and began selecting some Braeburns. "Not often. And by the way, that happens to be my favorite kind."

She raised her eyes in mock surprise. "Well, imagine that... So does your girlfriend know you have a roving eye?"

Walt wasn't about to let her get in the last dig as other shoppers glanced at the two of them. "What makes you assume I have a girlfriend?"

"Boyfriend, maybe?" The glint in her eyes was razor sharp as one passing shopper couldn't help but overhear the conversation and coughed.

Walt's eyes returned the challenge. "Hardly."

She allowed her expression to soften. "Doesn't seem to me that you can be very serious about her if you're trying to pick up women here. And by the way, asking for help selecting a melon is a better way to do it."

"I'll keep that in mind. And even though we're serious, we never agreed to be exclusive." He got a truly peeved look from the woman and several disapproving glances from the other shoppers. "I was, however, struck by how much you resemble her."

She shook her head and ran her tongue across her teeth. "What a line! Next thing you'll be wanting to kiss me to see where the resemblance ends."

His eyes raised expectantly as he saw the challenge in hers. "Well, now that you mention it..."

She rolled her eyes again. "You are too much." She tilted her head in contemplation. "If I agree to this, will you promise to leave me alone for the rest of my shopping?"

A small crowd was now hovering on their fringe, waiting to see the outcome as he responded. "I suppose."

"All right, fine, let's get it over with."

They both noticed the looks of disbelief on the other people's faces as they moved closer. Walt leaned in and gave her a short, barely there kiss. "Jeez, if that's the way you kiss your girlfriend, why are the two of you still together?"

The next kiss was substantially different and had some of the crowd gasping. "Better?" he murmured, a smug expression on his face.

She took a deep breath and smirked back. "Well, I'd keep you around, but I wouldn't let you out of my sight." She turned to the crowd. "Okay, show's over, you can go back to shopping."

The people smiled sheepishly and disbanded... although several stole glances back at them.

The auburn-haired woman smacked Walt on the shoulder while he laughed. "You know there are such things as phones, Walt. You could have called and said you'd be finished with that meeting earlier."

He took her hand and stroked it as they proceeded to another aisle. "Not one for surprises?"

"Not really, no." She shook her head again. "I will say this roguish side of you is appealing, although I hardly expected you to slip out of character in so public a place."

"Well, it's all your fault, Clare, you bring it out in me."

+ + + + + +

"Excuse me." The woman looked at Walt as though she'd spoken to him already. He murmured an apology and moved the cart out of the way. As he did so, he turned to where Anthony had last been and felt his stomach lurch as he was no longer there. Walt forced himself to look all around before he could start shouting his name and mentally admonished himself for being so careless.

It was only a few seconds, but words couldn't express his relief as he saw Anthony near the bread, apparently helping some woman with a baby.

Walt did a double-take as he approached. She looked like Clare -- well, actually 'Trish.' She had the same raven-colored hair with chestnut highlights and was almost the same height, though heavier. When she turned to Walt and smiled, he saw her eyes were a startling aquamarine.

"Anthony," the woman said. "I believe your father is here to reclaim you."

"I'm sorry if he was bothering you. He usually doesn't wander off like that." Not that I've spent a lot of time with him in stores, he thought, resolving to keep his son closer.

She smiled again and laughed -- it was a soothing, almost lyrical sound, and he realized that he and Anthony hadn't laughed together in weeks. "No problem. Ian tends to draw a crowd. One almost becomes an instant celebrity when you're out with a baby."

"He's four months old." Anthony contributed as he touched Ian's hand again.

Walt was going to say something in the way of a reprimand, but he stopped when it occurred to him that this was as animated as he'd seen Anthony outside of school.

"Are you and your wife expecting?" Walt had to turn his attention back to the woman as he too found himself drawn to the baby.

"Uh, no, we're not."

She gave him a puzzled look. "Oh." She turned toward Anthony and offered him her hand with a warm glint in her sparkling eyes -- he took her hand and shook it. "Thank you very much for your help, Anthony. Now if the two of you will excuse me, I'm shopping for the masses." With one last smile, she and Ian moved away.

As he watched her trailing back, Walt realized he'd never noticed the carts with built-in baby seats before -- and he wondered again how Clare had managed by herself.

After an 'ultra-healthy' meal of chicken franks and macaroni and cheese, they stacked the dishes in the dishwasher and tried to unpack a few more boxes. The movers in Iowa had simply packed up the contents of each room and labeled the boxes as such. Even though this house was larger, Walt still didn't know what he was going to do with all the duplicate items. He sighed as his gaze drifted to the computer desk and one of the photos there. It was the one from Clare's nightstand.

Walt had needed a few minutes to himself during the wake and had wandered to her room. He'd dropped the picture frame and discovered another image behind the first -- an image of him in front of his parents' house. One of Clare's co-workers had confirmed that she'd been to Austin -- to attend a conference.

Walt thought back again to the tall woman who'd begun to approach him, who'd been interrupted by a neighbor. Who'd then vanished before he could talk to her. And he wondered once more how he couldn't have instantly recognized her.

Walt sighed again as he opened another box of books. He'd been looking forward to their arguments about a house, and in his mind, he could hear Clare's comments about this one -- 'It's too expensive. You should at the very least look at another one, don't just buy the first one you see. It'll cost a small fortune to heat this place in the winter.'"And you're probably right, mon amour," he murmured out loud. The one aspect of the house he was sure she wouldn't have argued about was the number of bedrooms -- four.

+ + + + + +

Saturday, October 12, 1996

Walt was just returning from carrying Anthony to bed. The younger Skinner had fallen asleep across both their laps while watching television. As he entered the den, Walt cringed at the expression on Clare's face -- the one that said she was about to launch into another serious discussion. Intuition, combined with the fact that he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, made him guess what the topic was going to be. He sat next to her, resigned.

He took her hand and brought it to his lips. "Do we have to talk about this, Clare?"

She turned more toward him and gently stroked his chest through the shirt. "Yes, we do, mon cher. I don't want you to go through the rest of your life alone. I know this will sound weird, but a part of me would have been very happy if you'd shown up on my doorstep with a wife -- even if it would have confused Anthony tremendously." She chuckled. "Then again, he probably would have been thrilled if you and 'the new Mrs. Skinner' had provided him with some siblings. You should have heard him when Timmy got a new little sister."

Walt shook his head. "I don't understand why he still believes in the stork, especially after that comment."

"Well, none of his other friends have siblings under the age of one. They're mostly in the three- to four-year range and Anthony was too young to pay attention when they were born. As far as Timmy's sister is concerned, she was adopted, so that really furthered the notion of the stork. And even though I'm straying from the topic even more, he still believes in Santa Claus, the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy."

He wrapped his arm around her and pulled her tighter against his body, breathing in the still-fresh scent of shampoo in her hair. "Why is it so important to you that I get remarried?"

"Because I want you to be happy, to fulfill your dream of having a big family." She nearly trembled in memory. "It was one of the last things I thought about before I lost consciousness seven years ago."

Walt closed his eyes, swallowed awkwardly and spoke with a mildly chiding tone. "I wanted a big family with you. Besides, starting a family at 38 is a lot different than mid-late 40s or older. I'd be ready for retirement when they'd be graduating from high school."

Clare looked into his eyes with a touch of sadness. "Just promise me you won't close your mind to the possibility, mon cher."

He tenderly kissed her lips before slowly responding. "I promise, mon amour."

+ + + + + +

The room seemed colder and darker as his memory of the scene faded.

"I promise, mon amour," he repeated aloud, "but not for quite a while."

A Few Minutes Previous

Anthony was in his room, sitting on his bed, looking through his first baby album. He smiled as he turned the pages back and forth and watched himself grow. He stopped at a picture labeled 'Four months.' It was one of the few early pictures with his mother in it. Anthony carefully removed the photo and stared at it, tears filling his eyes. He missed her something awful.

He missed everything about her -- her hugs (even the ones at school), her smile, her laugh, her voice, the way she'd kiss his forehead checking for a temperature, the way she'd tickle his face with her hair -- everything. He glanced up and wondered if she was watching him now.

+ + + + + +

Thursday, October 10, 1996

Walt picked up his car keys from the kitchen table, started for the door and paused as Anthony hung back. "Aren't you coming with me?"

Anthony flashed Walt's own smile at him. "You know the way to the pizza shop. And I wanna talk to Mom."

Walt raised an eyebrow and started to remove his lightweight jacket. "Go ahead, Walt," Clare said, "the pizza will just get cold waiting."

Anthony saw the look they exchanged and knew she'd tell him everything later... and that was all right. He loved and trusted his father, but he still felt shy talking to him about some things.

Walt smiled with a trace of rejection and went out the door. Anthony walked to the table and climbed onto a chair as Clare followed him.

"What will happen when God comes for you?" When he wanted to know something, Anthony tended to come straight to the point, even if his questions weren't always worded accurately.

Clare raised her eyes and swallowed slowly.

"Well, Sweetpea," she tended to pause here and there, "some people will come and take my body away. Then they'll take it to a hospital, perform some tests and finally take it to a funeral parlor. It will sort of be 'put on display' so everyone can see it and say good-bye. After that, it'll be lowered into the ground."

Anthony shook his head. "But what happens to you?"

"To me?" Clare looked at him confused. "You mean to my soul, or spirit, or essence?" Anthony nodded. "Well, in some ways all three things will go up to heaven with God. And in other ways, they'll stay here with you and Dad."

"Here in this house?"

Clare smiled compassionately and moved her chair closer to his as she took his hand. "At first. But when you move, those parts of me will go with you -- and they'll always be with you."

"Will you be watching me from heaven?"

"Yes, Sweetpea. I'll watch you grow up, fall in love and raise your own family." Her smile became more playful. "I'll even watch you ask people what your present is so you can make them think about it and find out early."

He rolled his eyes. "Oh, Mom."

Her expression became more serious. "You have to be very careful how you use your gift, honey. Dad isn't as used to dealing with it as I am. You'll need to mind him when he says you can and can't use it."

Anthony looked down at his lap momentarily. "Dad has an important job, doesn't he?"

Clare felt a smile of pride spread across her face. "Yes, he does. A lot of people work for and depend on him... Sometimes he'll have to work late, but don't ever doubt that he loves you very, very much."

"Will he show me where he works?"

She smiled broader. "I'm sure he'll be quite happy to personally give you the full tour of the FBI building." Clare squeezed his hand affectionately. "He may not always be available to talk to you when he's at work, though. He can get very busy and be tied up in meetings. But he will always have time for you at home. You can talk to him about anything and always depend on him."

Anthony glanced away, a frightening memory surfacing. He spoke with a trace of uncertainty and fear in his voice. "Does Dad ever get mean?"

Clare's eyes grew wide before she understood what he was asking. "No, Sweetpea. He will never lose control like John's father did and hurt you." She tugged him toward her and held him tenderly. "I won't lie to you, Sweetpea. When your father gets really angry, his expression can be frightening... but he will never hit you." Anthony pulled back and he gazed into her tear-brimmed eyes.

"Like I've told you before, your father is a very kind, gentle, thoughtful and humorous man. Although sometimes his humor is a bit out there." She reflexively smiled at Anthony's smile. "You'll both need to be patient with each other, though. Being a dad is new to him. He may do things differently than I do and he'll probably make his fair share of mistakes, too. But he'll learn -- your dad is very good at just about everything he does." She leaned closer and gently kissed his forehead. "You get that from him."

He wrapped his arms around Clare's neck as a few tears slid down his cheeks. "I love you, Mom."

Clare kissed his head and embraced him fiercely. "I love you, too, Sweetpea."

+ + + + + +

Anthony continued looking up as he repeated those earlier words. "I love you, Mom."

Walt stood silently in the doorway and felt his heart warm. He was sure his son was looking up so Clare could see him better.

Anthony looked toward the door and quickly wiped his eyes with the back of his hand as Walt sauntered in and sat on the bed. He seemed hesitant to let Walt embrace him and rubbed at his eyes some more.

"It's all right to cry when you think of Mom and none of your school friends are here to see me hug you," Walt told him.

Anthony smiled shyly and snuggled against Walt's chest. "The kids at school say only babies cry."

Walt rolled his eyes as he stroked Anthony's head -- most of the children in his class were a 'mature' two years older. "Well, they're wrong. There's no age limit for crying. I tear up when I think of your mom."

Anthony burrowed his head deeper. "Do you think of her a lot?"

Walt leaned down and kissed Anthony's head. "Uh huh. Almost all the time. I think of her when I see you, when I see pictures. And if I'm not near you or pictures, I just close my eyes and see her in my mind."

Anthony straightened up suddenly and fixed Walt with a penetrating gaze. "When will it stop hurting, Dad?"

Walt sighed and wished his son didn't have to grow up so fast. "I can't give you an exact answer, Anthony. I just don't know -- but the pain will go away, and once it does, when you think of Mom you'll feel happy, not sad."

Walt hugged him tighter and propped his chin on Anthony's head. "Ben isn't telling you that nonsense about crying, I hope."

Anthony sniffled and sat back up. Walt gently wiped away his tears. "No, it's the other kids. In fact, they make Ben cry sometimes when they pick on him. Why do they do that, Dad?"

"I don't know, Anthony. Some people just feel the need to be mean. They think they're better than everybody else if they can make someone feel bad."

"Does that mean they have low self-esteem?"

"Where did you hear that?"

Anthony shrugged. "I read it in a magazine."

"That's one reason, yes." He'll never cease to amaze me, Walt thought, changing subjects. "Why did Ben's father pick him up today?"

"He said he had to go to the dentist -- him, Charlee and Amelia."

alt="Anthony Book Well, Walt thought, I'm getting more names... but 'Charlie?' "Did Ben happen to mention what his parents' names are? Or what they do for a living?"

Anthony sighed and raised one eyebrow as he closed the other eye. "His mom's name is Allison and his dad has a funny name... like some spice."

Walt thought for a moment. "Basil?"

Anthony nodded. "That's it. Ben said his dad sells drugs." The elder Skinner tilted his head and hoped that meant Mr. Wright was a drug rep or a pharmacist.

Anthony decided to volunteer some more information. "He's got a little brother, too. Ben calls him 'Icky' 'cause all he ever does is cry, poop, pee, eat and sleep." The younger Skinner started to giggle. "Ben says he can't watch when his mom opens up her shirt and Icky eats. Why is that?"

Walt loudly exhaled and felt his cheeks redden -- he'd hardly expected to launch into a discussion about breast-feeding. "Well... Anthony... people are mammals and, uh, female mammals produce milk to feed their young and, uh, it comes out in the--"

Anthony mercifully cut him off. "Daaad, I've seen puppies and kittens. Why can't Ben watch?"

Walt closed his eyes briefly and chided himself. When am I going to learn to get him to clarify questions first, he asked. "Maybe it makes his mother uncomfortable... or maybe it makes him uncomfortable. That's really a question you should ask Ben."

Walt looked around to try to change the subject again and his eyes fastened on the picture Anthony had been holding. He understood all over why Anthony had been drawn to that woman in the grocery store.

Walt thought back to the store and pictured the woman again. They'd seen her several more times before they'd left, always with someone talking to her and oohing over 'Ian.'... Clare's hair was wavy in the picture just like hers. 'Ian' also looked remarkably like Anthony at the same age -- cherubic, with blond hair and blue eyes.

"Ian and his mom looked kinda like Mom and me, huh?" Anthony's voice was low and hesitant.

Walt smiled softly. "Yes, Anthony, they kind of did."

Thursday, November 7, 1996, 10:45p.m.

Walt rummaged through the medicine cabinet and tossed each of the few bottles he found after quickly scanning the age requirements.

Anthony had gone to bed with the sniffles almost two hours earlier and now had a full-blown, miserable cold. And they were supposed to fly up to Boston the next night for the long weekend.

Against his better judgment, Walt bundled his son up and transported him to the car, stopping only long enough to put on shoes and grab a jacket for himself.

They pulled into the parking lot of a large drugstore, and Walt was thankful it was open till midnight.

After wandering past several aisles, they approached the cold medicine section. "Cold and Allergy... Cough... Throat Pain and Cough... Cough and Decongestant. What happened to one uniform medication?" Walt grumbled.

Anthony shook his head and reached into his pockets looking for tissues -- he came up empty-handed. Walt shoved his hands into his own pockets with the same result. "Great," he mumbled as Anthony sneezed.

"God bless you," a female voice said from behind them. They turned to see the woman Walt recognized from the grocery store holding an open box of tissues.

"Thank you," Anthony replied, and quickly took one.

She smiled as she leaned down to remove his scarf and loosen his coat. "I take it you have a cold, Anthony?" He nodded as he carefully blew his nose.

It occurred to Walt that he should make a contribution to the conversation instead of just standing there. "I'm impressed that you remembered his name," he peered at the nametag she was wearing as she straightened up, "Dr. Hogle."

"I'm pretty good with names, especially when they belong to very helpful, polite children."

Anthony favored her with a beaming smile as she smiled at him. "When did drugstores start hiring doctors?" Walt continued.

Dr. Hogle turned her attention back to him. "They didn't. I have a PharmD." He raised an eyebrow in question. She rolled her eyes. "A doctorate in pharmacy."

"Oh. Well, that makes you the perfect person to ask about the best way to get rid of Anthony's cold." He realized his contributions so far were sounding stiff and was glad that Anthony seemed to have Clare's knack for small talk. What the hell is wrong with me, he thought, I'm usually not this bad.

"Bed rest and plenty of fluids," Dr. Hogle replied.

Walt thought she was being flip and unconsciously fixed her with one of his stern, narrowed-eyed looks. She simply stared back at him, unaffected.

"I'll bet that expression makes you very popular at work," she said.

Walt relaxed his expression and allowed a hint of a smile to surface -- few things impressed him more than someone who refused to be intimidated by that look, even if he had inadvertently used it.

Dr. Hogle continued, moving back to safer ground. "All you can do with a cold is treat the symptoms -- unless it turns into an infection, but I doubt you're at that stage. So what are your symptoms, Anthony?" He coughed for the third time since she'd arrived. "Besides coughing."

He smiled again. "My throat hurts, my ears are plugged up and my nose is all runny."

She squatted and removed his hat. "Do you have a temperature, honey?"

"We didn't check for that," Anthony said while looking at Walt.

"Well, let's find out." She leaned closer and kissed his forehead.

Anthony's eyes lit up at the familiar sensation as Walt raised his again. "Definitely warm. Which would you prefer, Anthony, liquid or chewables?"


Dr. Hogle went to the rack and retrieved a package of Tylenol Cold Plus Cough for children and handed it to Walt. "Everything you need is in that. Feed him lots of fluids, specifically water and chicken soup, and any hard candy will do to keep his throat lubricated. If his cough starts to sound congested or he starts to feel pain in his ears, you'll need to take him to his pediatrician."

alt="Anthony Book Shit. That's something else I didn't take care of yet, Walt thought -- and Clare told me I need to watch Anthony's colds since he no longer has his spleen.

"Uh, you wouldn't happen to be able to recommend a good pediatrician, would you?" he reluctantly asked, knowing it made him sound uninformed.

He knew that he had to present a conundrum to this woman: Why does this guy seem so inexperienced? What does he do, let his wife take care of everything? For that matter, why drag his son out when he's got a cold instead of leaving him home with his mother?

He was relieved when she took out a pen and small notepad before jotting something down and handing the paper to him. "I'm assuming you live in the area. New Carrollton Pediatrics is very good. They have four doctors on staff and take any insurance. Oh, and you'll want to purchase the adult version of Anthony's medicine if you don't have any at home."

Walt looked at her quizzically. "I don't feel sick."

"Trust me, I've got four kids, you'll get it."

"AJ, your husband's on line 1," a clerk hollered.

She looked at her watch. "At this hour? Wonderful, probably means one of mine is sick." Dr. Hogle rolled her eyes good-naturedly and started to back up. "If you'll excuse me."

"Thanks for your help," Walt answered, while Anthony waved.

"Anytime," she called over her shoulder with a grin.

Anthony and Walt started walking to the front. "I like her, she's nice, Dad. Too bad she can't be my sitter."

Walt glanced back one last time and wasn't entirely sure he agreed.

She certainly seemed nice enough, but -- maybe that was it, she was too friendly. And what was that business with kissing Anthony's forehead, he wondered.

Walt sighed as he paid the cashier -- he really needed a decent night's sleep. He was starting to read something into everything, seeing conspiracy everywhere. Great, he thought, Mulder's paranoia is rubbing off on me.

Then again, where Anthony was concerned, he knew he couldn't be too careful.

Monday, November 25, 1996

Walt was trying to finish up the latest influx of reports on his desk. He'd come into work an hour early that morning and skipped lunch in an effort to clear his desk from the buildup his two sick days had caused. Today was the first in a week that he'd felt free of that damned cold and flu. He'd been so confident when he thought he'd escaped Anthony's cold... only to end up with it and more.

Alma had all but laughed in his face when he'd finally come down with it -- especially since she'd gone through her own rotation of feeling rotten.

Walt greatly appreciated his mother-in-law's flying down to help with Anthony, but she was definitely getting on his nerves after almost two weeks. Thankfully, he'd finally found someone to watch Anthony after school... the only problem was that she couldn't start until December 2.

God, he thought, as he signed off on Scully and Mulder's latest bizarre case, all the rest of the family will be here for Thanksgiving. He was very much looking forward to getting his house back to themselves at the end of Sunday.

He wondered again how Clare had done it -- be a single parent, how she'd balanced job and motherhood without burning out. Walt didn't envy her the midnight feedings (even if he didn't have to deal with them), the constant feeling of never getting quite enough sleep, the lost wages caused by staying home when Anthony had been sick, the dull ache he was sure she'd felt when she'd left their son at daycare.

Some of his agents felt compelled to share with him the problems of raising their own children. Politely listening to their thankfully brief accounts made him even prouder of Clare's job of raising their son.

He wished he could forget his knowledge of the darkness of men's souls and learn to trust as she had. As the Pilgrim settlers had trusted the Indians, he thought, quickly glancing at his watch and swearing under his breath. Tonight was the school's Thanksgiving play and he'd promised Anthony he'd be home early.

Alma shot him a disapproving glare as she hastily made a plate for him of the dinner she and Anthony had already finished.

"I know, I'm sorry, I got tied up in a series of meetings and..." Walt didn't bother completing his sentence. Clare's father had always worked on the docks as a supervisor and been home at the same time every night for dinner -- Alma couldn't get used to the fact that Walt got home at different times each night.

"Where's Anthony?" he asked as he removed his overcoat and suit jacket before sitting down to quickly eat the food she put in front of him.

"Upstairs changing into his costume." She left, not without flashing one last reprimanding look at him, however.

It had become very obvious during this extended visit that Clare took far more after her father... except for the fact that both she and Alma were pretty good cooks. He was getting very spoiled coming home to, well, warm food on the table, anyway. Neither the new sitter nor the twice-a-week housekeeper were going to cook for him. Or sew costumes for Anthony's school activities.

Ben was supposed to have portrayed Governor William Bradford tonight and his mother, the elusive Allison Wright, had made his costume only to have Ben come down with both that cold and laryngitis the end of the previous week. Somehow Anthony had inherited the role and the costume... he was even looking forward to faking the accent.

Alma had taken the costume in to compensate for Ben's larger shape and Walt had repeatedly tried calling Mrs. Wright to thank her. But all he ever got was the answering machine. After the fourth attempt, and Basil's cheery clipped accent urging him to leave a message, he'd done just that -- and sneezed right as he'd said 'Anthony.'

Anthony had spent the entire weekend talking about the play, repeatedly asking Walt to be sure and get well so he could watch him. He'd been a natural ham in Iowa and Walt was pleased to see this side of him resurface -- and he knew Clare would be proud. Their son was steadily opening back up... he still had a long way to go, but his progress was becoming more visible.

Walt took his empty plate to the sink and rinsed it off before putting it in the dishwasher. As he turned around, Anthony walked into the kitchen. He seemed to be missing his previous exuberance.

"What's the matter, Anthony, getting stage fright?" Walt gently teased.

Anthony absently dragged his foot across the floor and took a deep breath. "Mom always said to just be myself... and I've been pretending to be someone else."

Walt was mystified by the comment. "It's all right to pretend, that's what acting and plays are all about."

His son looked like he was going to say something else, but Alma cut him off. "Walt, if you're going to change clothes or wash up, you need to do it now. We're already behind schedule and we can't be late."

He forced a small smile. Anthony's world didn't need to filled with 'hurry up and wait' just yet.

They made it to the school in plenty of time and Alma fussed over Anthony like a mother hen -- well, grandmother hen.

"Now don't be nervous, baby. No one will laugh if you forget your lines. After all, you haven't had as much time with them as the other children."

Walt rolled his eyes -- all she was succeeding in doing was making him nervous. "Why don't you go find us some seats, Alma?" He tried to make his smile look warm as she reluctantly left.

Walt took his son's hand as he squatted next to him. "Forget everything your grandmother just said. All that's important is that you have fun out there. It's okay to feel nervous. If you feel that way on stage, pause a moment and take a deep breath."

Anthony nodded numbly and spoke in a whisper. "Do you think Mom will be watching?"

Walt smiled. "I'm sure she wouldn't miss it... And we're both very proud of you."

Anthony looked carefully around to see if anyone was looking before he wrapped his arms around Walt's neck and gave him a big hug. "Thanks, Dad."

Walt looked carefully around too, before he kissed Anthony's forehead and wandered back to the seats. He found Alma easily and noted that four of the Wrights were in the audience, including Ben. Absent were Allison and 'Icky.' He wondered why they would have stayed home if Ben was well enough to watch the performance. For that matter, he wondered why any of them were here since Ben wasn't performing.

He'd just gotten comfortable when his cell phone began to ring. Alma shot him a dirty look as he hurriedly excused himself and left the auditorium. He moved to a low-traffic area and answered the phone.


"Mr. Skinner, this is Gretchen Stanley."

Anthony's sitter. Walt held his breath. He had a feeling he knew what was coming next. "I'm really sorry to have to tell you this, but my husband just got transferred to Atlanta. We just found out today."

Walt dropped his head; this was the last news he needed.

"The company wants him there in three weeks, so I'm afraid I won't be able to watch Anthony for you. I'm really sorry."

"That's all right, Mrs. Stanley, I understand. These things happen." And they would happen to me, he silently added. "Thank you for letting me know so soon. Good luck."

He disconnected the phone and knew he was scowling. He turned and saw one and a half familiar people walking in his direction.

"Good grief, what did I do to deserve that look this time?" Dr. Hogle said with a smile.

"Excuse me?"

" Why are you scowling this time?" She shifted Ian to her other shoulder and adjusted the diaper bag.

The mischievous element to her smile was infectious and he couldn't help relaxing his expression. "My sitter's husband just got transferred."

She tilted her head. "Well, you'll find somebody else."

He pursed his lips. "It took me a month to find her. I've been told that my, uh, standards are high." Actually, Alma had voiced her opinion more colorfully after witnessing a few interviews.

Dr. Hogle smiled knowingly. "These days, it pays to be safe. We've got a wonderful 'Gramma' just down the block from us -- actually, she's a retired teacher, but that's what the kids tend to call her. She may be interested in picking up some extra hours -- I can give you her name if you'd like to interview her."

She shifted Ian again and bounced him lightly on her shoulder.

"That's kind of you, but I need someone every day."

She nodded. "You or your wife must travel a lot."

Walt looked past her and drifted away for a moment. "I'm a widower. My wife, uh, died." He surprised himself by admitting that to her, basically a stranger. But a stranger he felt oddly connected to. Nonetheless, he resolved to be more careful with his answers.

Dr. Hogle's expression immediately registered sincere empathy and compassion as she looked into his eyes. "Oh! I'm so very... very sorry."

"Thank you," he quietly replied.

"I'm, uh, sure the initial adjustment period is very difficult for you and Anthony," she went on.

"We're muddling through."

She smoothed her hand over Ian's head before kissing it as several people walked past them. "Um, what are you doing with Anthony after school now? If you don't mind my asking."

His instincts told him she was genuinely interested, was on the level. But experience had taught him that instincts weren't always correct -- he slowly answered the question anyway. "My mother-in-law has been staying with us the last two weeks."

She made an abortive attempt to stop her grimace. "Sorry. My in-laws are wonderful people, and so are my parents. In fact, my husband and I lived with his parents for a little over three years. At this point, though, I think I'd go nuts if any of them stayed in my house for two straight weeks."

Walt grimaced as the thought of living with Alma for three years genuinely upset his stomach. He started to say something, then decided against it.

Dr. Hogle jiggled Ian as he started to cry. "What is it, Icky, uh, Ian. Blast your brother for giving you such a ridiculous nickname."

Icky. Icky?

Walt gaped at her as the light bulb went on in his head. "You're Allison Wright?"

She knotted both eyebrows. "Yeees."

Walt now looked puzzled at her expression. "I'm Walter Skinner -- I left a message on your machine about the costume."

Allison's expression softened. "That was you? It didn't sound anything like you," she looked mildly triumphant, "in fact, it sounded like you had a cold."

He twitched his lips nearly into a sheepish smile. "Yes, well, I got the flu with it, too."

She started to laugh again and Walt was warmed by the sound all over.

"It feels like we've gone from strangers to neighbors in about 10 seconds." She shook her head slowly. "I didn't realize you had two boys."

Walt gazed back at her confused. "I don't. Anthony is an only child."

Allison mirrored his look. "Then why does Trevor call Anthony 'Nick'?"

Walt raised an eyebrow and replied slowly. "For the same reason Anthony calls Trevor 'Ben'?"

They stared at each other a second before it hit them simultaneously. "They're using their middle names."

They both started to laugh and Walt's features softened as he relaxed. "No wonder Trevor was dragging his heels so much about coming tonight; he knew the jig would be up," Allison noted.

"Well, it also explains a comment Anthony made about 'pretending to be someone else.'"

One of the doors to the auditorium opened and Alma came out, craning her neck as she scanned the lobby for her son-in-law.

"Walt, there you are. Hurry up, they just raised the curtain and Anthony will be crushed if you miss anything."

Walt threw Allison a quick 'heaven help me' look before turning to his mother-in-law.


He looked back at Allison as she continued to bounce Ian, still crying. "After you." He placed a gentle hand on the small of her back.

Allison grinned at him. "I'll, uh, go in a little later. Ian's apparently hungry and Trevor will be terminally embarrassed if I feed him in there... even if it is dark. I'll see you backstage at the end."

Not quite 45 minutes later, the play was over. Play was actually a misnomer... the evening was more of a series of skits with a common theme. The kindergarten through second-grade classes had performed original songs, while the older grades had staged varying recreations of the first Thanksgiving.

Walt hadn't been sure Alma would make it through Anthony's performance. He'd been positive she was mouthing all the words with him and he'd heard her gasp as Anthony paused between lines. The smile his son had given as he'd finished his speech had told Walt it was more a pause for dramatic effect than nerves. Alma, he was sure, had thought he'd frozen.

Walt had looked over to the Wrights several times when the lighting had allowed. His heart had sagged a little at the sight of them so apparently happy. He'd been unable to stop himself from thinking that they could have been Clare and him if... He'd let his mind hover over the possibility before turning his attention back to the stage.

Now, Walt and Alma made their way through the throng of other parents and found Anthony.

Even though his part had ended almost 25 minutes earlier, he was still charged up and happily flung himself into Walt's arms, unmindful of everyone else. "That was fun, Dad! I can't wait for the Christmas play!"

Walt looked into his son's glowing eyes and felt his heart rise back up. "I'm glad you enjoyed yourself. You're a natural."

Alma patted Anthony's head affectionately. "At least you didn't start stammering like that other poor child. You recovered very nicely when you forgot your line, sweetie."

Walt felt annoyance building at her unnecessary and unflattering comments.

"Oh, he didn't forget his line. That was a dramatic pause if ever I heard one." Walt turned with a warm expression as Allison and her brood walked over. Anthony's thousand-watt smile faded quickly as Trevor moved out from behind his mother. She squatted in front of him, Amelia and Charlee each holding a hand.

"Oh, don't pout. I'd much rather see that beautiful smile... 'Nick.'" She winked at him as he let the corners of his mouth twitch.

Anthony looked quickly at Walt and smiled at his father's amused expression. He quickly read his thoughts for insurance, even though he knew he shouldn't, and realized he wasn't in trouble.

Alma shook her head. "Anthony, why did you tell Trevor your name was 'Nick'?"

Walt sighed and placed a hand on her shoulder. "That can wait till we get home, Alma."

"But Walt, if he's unhappy with his name--"

Allison cut her off. "It's just a phase."

She turned her attention back to Anthony as she stood up and felt Basil and Ian behind her. "You did a wonderful job, young man, and you look very spiff in the costume." Her eyes flashed kindly as she smoothed the girls' hair and Trevor went to stand next to Anthony.

Anthony beamed again, both at the compliment and the familiar 'young man' phrase -- until Alma stuck her foot in her mouth once more.

"I had to take in the costume several inches. Trevor is a bit bigger than Anthony."

Walt silently winced -- one of the few things he'd gotten out of Anthony was that 'Ben' was very sensitive about his weight.

Allison looked at her embarrassed eldest son affectionately. "I'm glad you were talented enough to alter it as needed."

Basil watched the exchange with amusement. "Maybe it's a good time for formal introductions," he interjected.

After the introductions and the 'settling' of names, Allison drew Walt aside. "I realize I'm probably overstepping my bounds, but I tend to get presumptuous at times." Walt raised an amused eye and half-glanced toward Alma. "But Basil and I spoke during the play and if you'd be comfortable with it, Anthony can come to our house after school for as long as he needs to."

Walt thought before he replied -- it was a very attractive offer. Anthony certainly got along well with Trevor, and Walt did feel there was a good rapport between him and Allison, but...

"That's very tempting, but I get home anywhere from six to eight o'clock, and I wouldn't want to impose like that."

"It wouldn't be an imposition... in fact, you'd be doing us a favor. Ever since Trevor's best friend moved to Florida last month, he's been lonely. He'll play with Charlee and Amelia if he has to... and you already know how he refers to Ian. Basil and I thought this solution might work best for all of us." She paused. "But we hardly expect you to make a decision right away. You'll want to meet Teresa, our sitter, of course, and visit our house." Her lips curled into a smile. "And run a background check, no doubt."

Walt's head snapped back up and he raised a suspicious eyebrow. "Anthony told Trevor where I work?"

Allison chuckled. "Hardly. According to Trevor, Anthony has been tight-lipped about you. You do, however, have a strong familiar air of being in law enforcement. I also can't say I was surprised at being unable to get your phone number." Walt allowed himself to relax again. "So just what do you do?" she asked.

"I'm an Assistant Director with the FBI."

"Well, that explains why you get home so late, buried under mounds of paper. If I might make a suggestion?" She paused, waiting for him to motion for her to continue. "You might want to consider bringing home whatever work you can. I know lots of people believe in the 'quality time' theory, but I've found that children just plain like having their parents visible and available. You can always work on files after he goes to bed."

How could I miss something so obvious, he thought -- because old habits die hard, he answered himself. He looked toward Anthony as he, Trevor and the girls were in a laughing fit at the faces Basil was making. "I've been letting him stay up later so we'd have time each night. Clare -- my wife -- told him I'd always have time for him at home... and I didn't want to let him down."

Allison took his hand and gently squeezed. "I doubt that Anthony's grandmother 'approves' of that arrangement." Walt rolled his eyes in response as Allison laughed again. "You won't let him down as long as you're honest, interested in his opinion and keep the channels of communication open. Children are bright and resilient; they adapt to change better than most adults."

"Dad?" Anthony's voice was tentative as Walt pulled the covers up around him. "Why did Gramma hurt Trevor's feelings? I mean she said she was sorry, but I don't understand. I thought adults knew better."

Walt sat on the bed and gazed thoughtfully at his perceptive son. "Sometimes even adults say things without thinking about them first."

"Then she wasn't deliberately trying to be mean?"

He smiled at his son's earnest expression. "No, Anthony, she wasn't."

Walt studied his son's face for a few seconds before he broached the other subject. Anthony really was a good mix of himself and Clare... even if few people could probably see it without seeing early, haired photos of him.

Anthony's eyes were hazel, the shape and size also exactly like Clare's -- he even had her profuse, long lashes. And he had her peaches and cream complexion as well as her heart-shaped face. The hair was a toss-up. It was still a lightish red, though deeper than strawberry blond, but would probably deepen to match Clare's auburn color. Unlike her fine, generally straight hair, though, Anthony's was coarser and curly -- just like Walt's used to be when he was younger -- well, when he had a lot more. The same applied to Anthony's nose -- it would have matched his father's perfectly if Walt hadn't broken his twice (once in Vietnam and once as a field agent). His son's mouth was exactly like Walt's, and he wished Anthony had inherited Clare's fuller lips.

"I'm not upset about you going by 'Nick' at school, and I'm sure your grandfather would be flattered. I would like to know why, though."

Anthony looked away before replying. "When Mr. Cochran introduced me to the class, he asked me whether I wanted to called 'Anthony' or 'Tony' and I said 'Nick.' I guess I... I guess I wanted to see what it was like to pretend to be someone else, like Mom did."

Walt sighed quietly; he'd guessed 'Trish' would factor into it.

"I thought it might make me feel closer to her," Anthony finished.

Walt felt his heart sink again at Anthony's attempt to deal with his grief on his own... and felt disappointed in himself for not helping his son more. "Did it help?"

"A little. Not the way I thought it would, though. It made me feel like I had a shield, sort of, when the other kids started teasing me about my last name and my hair."

Walt remembered that painful aspect of his childhood, too. He had always been very careful with his money and had invariably been called 'Skinflint.' And since he was chunky till about fifth grade, when his own widely erratic growth patterns had leveled out, he'd been tormented with 'Skinny.' He'd also been terribly razzed about his curly locks and had begged his mother to give him a crewcut. Then, of course, the kids started calling him 'Skinhead'; the final coup de grace had been when his hair had grown back twice as curly. Yep, Walt didn't miss childhood at all.

"Trevor was nice right from the start, so I told him about my shield and he decided to try it. It didn't work as well for him, but he really doesn't like his name, so I kept calling him 'Ben,' anyway."

Walt smiled at his son's simple, unintentional but effective way of insulating himself against being the new kid on the block.

"How would you feel about going to Trevor's house after school for a few hours until I come home from work?"

Anthony's expression brightened instantly. "Really? Can I start tomorrow?"

alt="Anthony Book So much for Anthony having a dissenting opinion and/or wanting to stay home with his grandmother, Walt thought. "Not quite. Mrs. Wright has invited us to dinner so we can meet their sitter and get the feel of things. If everything works out, you'd start going home with Trevor next Monday."

Anthony settled back into his pillow. "Oh, it'll work out, Dad. Just as long as I don't have to watch Icky eat."

Tuesday, November 26, 1996, 6:43p.m.
Wright residence

Walt stood on the well-lit columned front porch of the house with Anthony and both of his in-laws. Phil had unexpectedly turned up late that afternoon after Alma had phoned to say she'd stepped on their son-in-law's toes. Walt, in turn, had called Allison to check about bringing a fourth person.

A smile crept across his face as he recalled her response -- 'Well, gee, Walt, I don't know that we can put together another stuffed Cornish game hen in time and we'll be one raspberry bombe short.' Her response to how to dress had been similar -- 'More than a bathing suit, less than a tux.' She definitely had a quirky sense of humor, which was pretty much what he felt like he needed after his day -- and he missed Clare more just thinking about it.

Basil opened the door and invited them into the vestibule. He took their coats and hung them up in a closet before showing them to the drawing room, ushering them past a distinctive, pillared staircase that momentarily caught Walt's attention.

"Ally and Teresa are just finishing up. I'd offer you a drink, but we don't keep any alcohol around. Dinner will be ready in a few minutes; have a seat while I round up the kids."

They all glanced around the room while they waited, raising eyebrows.

From the coordinated wall coverings to the antique furniture, baby grand piano and built-ins, the room exuded tons of money.

Walt couldn't help but think as he gazed around that the children could never be allowed in here, like the Victorian parlors where children only entered on Sundays when guests were present or for piano lessons. He started to have doubts about Anthony being happy in that environment.

Basil returned with the children and Teresa Fanning, the babysitter, and quickly introduced everyone. Walt's new concerns were assuaged as the children seemed lively and at ease in the surroundings and elicited not one comment from Basil. 'Gramma' Teresa was charming and Anthony took an instant liking to her.

The pocket doors at the end of the room opened and Allison announced that dinner was ready.

For a brief second Walt thought he was looking at Clare. The emerald color to Allison's ankle-length, side-buttoned dress brought out the same color in her eyes and she'd swept her hair up like Clare often had.

Walt quickly realized that if he'd mistaken Allison for Clare that Anthony would be far more confused, having seen his mother with that coloring for all but nearly two weeks of his life. He glanced toward Anthony and cringed.

Anthony stared at Allison; from his expression, Walt guessed that he was afraid if he took his eyes off her that 'Mom' would leave again. He had to know that she wasn't Clare, but it felt so good to 'almost' see her without having to look at a photo or watch the tapes that Walt had to sympathize. As if reading his thoughts -- and perhaps he was -- Anthony wandered over to Walt and shyly took his father's hand as everyone proceeded to the dining room.

The furnishings in this room appeared to be the same style. The immense cherrywood table was laden with covered dishes, an astonishing array of dinnerware, water in goblets at each place setting and a cascading floral arrangement of lilies and roses.

Walt had assumed that Allison was kidding about the food; now he wasn't so sure. He was relieved to see a relatively tame-looking salad, rolls and two gravy boats.

Basil placed Ian in an over-sized basket on the floor. "Please have a seat, everyone," he said, straightening up before following Allison out of the room.

Walt gazed around the dining room in awe and wondered if the background check had missed something.

Allison and Basil reappeared and she quickly went around the table filling up the children's glasses with milk, while Basil offered the adults coffee or tea. He also quickly introduced his wife to Mr. Hoffmann.

Allison glanced at her adult guests -- the children were jabbering quite happily. "Well, you three seem to be reticent. I guess that means Basil, Teresa and I will have to do all the talking."

Alma smiled cautiously, remembered the chewing out Walt had given her the previous evening when she'd voiced some ill-advised opinions and said not a word. Walt smiled and wished again that he had Clare's ability for small talk, especially in a group setting.

Phil decided to venture a comment -- and do a little investigating, Walt thought with an inward chuckle. "Your house and furnishings are quite impressive, Mrs. Wright. Family heirlooms?"

She grinned and softly chuckled. "Yes and no. And call me Allison. We bought the house, but the furniture in here, the drawing room and the hall was made by my great-grandfather. He was a woodworker," she explained, "and a wealthy client asked him to make all this plus two bedroom suites. Unfortunately, the client went bankrupt and my ancestor was stuck... nearly bankrupted him."

Walt felt himself relax and allowed the corners of his mouth to twitch.

"The furniture looks like Classical Revival, my, uh, parents were antique dealers," Alma offered.

"It's a simplified version of that style. It goes quite well with our Georgian Revival house," Allison answered.

"I didn't notice many houses this size on the block," Walt finally commented.

Basil put the carafes down and assisted Allison in the removal of lids. "Only one other one survived," he observed. "You should have seen what this place looked like when we bought it. In fact, if you're really interested, we've got two photo albums devoted exclusively to the renovation."

They finished removing all but one of the lids of the dishes and revealed six different vegetables, a gelatin fruit salad and rice. Basil stood poised over the largest dish and smiled. "And the main course. I do hope you all like kidney pie and liver mousse."

Anthony blanched while the Wright children almost synchronized their response. "Daaad!" That didn't seem to perturb him in the least as he smiled broader and revealed instead a steaming roast pork.

"Please don't feel obligated to eat some of everything," Allison said. "Trev, Charlee and Amelia tend to get finicky about vegetables, unless it's French fries."

Once everyone's plates had been piled, Walt pursued the previous conversation. "So the house needed some renovating?"

"This place was just short of being condemned," Teresa volunteered. "I thought these kids had lost their minds when they bought it."

"In fact that's how we met -- when Teresa came down to see who would buy such a dilapidated house," Allison added. "It was a steal." She named the price.

Walt paused in mid-bite, remembering all too well the cost of his house in good shape, no alterations necessary. "That's all?"

"Well, you have to factor in five times that for the renovation. And God only knows what it would have cost if Ally's brother hadn't done the work." Basil resumed eating.

Talk turned to football, as Phil discovered that he and Allison shared a preference for the Detroit Lions. Walt's mind drifted to the sole game he'd watched with Clare.

+ + + + + +

Monday, October 7, 1996, 10:00p.m.

Now that Anthony had been carried off to bed, Walt attempted to snuggle next to Clare, but she kept moving around, gesturing at the television. "Come on, guys, don't give Slash so much time to pass!" She leaned forward for the next play. "It's a passing play. Blitz! Blitz!"

He rolled his eyes again. "How can you tell it's a passing play?" Even as he spoke, the play got moving and Clare turned out to be right.

"From the way Hastings and Thigpen were lined up. Damn! First down."

He grinned as he leaned forward. "Maybe there's something else on."

She didn't bother to look at him as she growled her response. "Touch that remote and you're dead meat. Fumble, we need a fumble. Get him! Bury 'em!"

"Clare? Has anyone told you that you take this too seriously?"

"Shut up or you'll be sleeping outside. All right, another running play. Stuff Bettis/Peagram, whichever guy that is. Yes, yes, it's a fumble!"

Walt decided on a different tack to get her attention and swung around her. She was sitting so far forward on the loveseat that he easily got a leg on either side. "Oh, for crying out loud! How long does it take to get to the bottom of the pile? Yes, Derrick Thomas! KC ball!"

While Pittsburgh and Kansas City switched offensive and defensive teams, Walt busied himself by unbuttoning her pullover shirt. He eased it back a little and started nuzzling her neck and exposed shoulder -- she absently swatted him away. Walt continued his progress and unbuttoned her jeans, tugging her shirt completely out before pulling it up and off her body.

"Would you just go away and leave me alone already?"

He responded by pressing his lips to her spine and nibbling his way down as far as he could reach.

"Get something going, Stevie baby, hand it off to Marcus... or Kimble, that works for me. Six yards -- yes -- keep it moving, boys!"

Walt moved his hands to her chest and released her breasts from the bra. He stroked them and she finally made some concession to his ministrations. "Ahh -- airmail the ball to Lake or 'Cash & Carry' -- mmm -- can't you at least wait for a commercial?"

He started nuzzling her neck again. "What I have in mind will take longer than that."

"Oh, yeah? Well, whatever you have in mind better not block my view of the TV."

He pushed her up and eased her jeans and panties off. "You could show more enthusiasm, you know... for what I'm doing, that is."

She sat back down after he got the garments past her feet. "It's not advisable to interrupt me when KC's playing. Yes! Yes!! Go, baby! Go, go, go! Touchdown!"

Walt rolled his eyes as he stripped off his shirt and pulled her back against his muscular chest. "What are you planning to do Sunday -- take the TV to the state park?"

He went back to nuzzling her neck while his hands moved to her breasts and mons.

"Ahh -- it's a bye week... you don't think I check these things? -- mmm -- shit, I can't believe Stoyanovich missed the extra point."

"Nobody's perfect," he murmured in her ear and plunged his fingers inside her.

She bit her lip. "Yes. A holding call against Pittsburgh -- uh -- line up and try it again -- uh -- it's up and it's -- AHH!"

+ + + + + +

"Walt?" Allison looked at him expectantly. "Who do you like for Thanksgiving?"

He cleared his mind and smiled. "Dallas."

The adults groaned. "You're going to root against the home team?" Teresa asked with reprimanding eyes.

"I don't have anything against Washington. I've always been a Dallas fan and I always will be."

"Just be glad I won't have a reason to root against you, 'cause I'd be yelling for Detroit to 'put lots of ache' in Aikman. I will, however, admit to finding Deion Sanders amusing." Allison punctuated her remarks with a grin.

The rest of dinner proceeded smoothly through talk of the renovation and more football. It was also discovered that Phil Hoffmann, having worked on the Detroit docks for a few years, had transacted business with Allison's father, owner of an import/export company. Dessert -- angel food cake with strawberries, without a raspberry bombe in sight -- was consumed before the guests embarked on an eye-popping tour of the house and then had a quick scan through the renovation albums.

Allison disappeared twice, once to feed Ian and a second time to put him to bed. Alma cornered her the first time to apologize for her comments at the school. Walt approached Allison the second time just as she was closing the door to Ian's room, baby monitor in hand.

"He asleep?" he murmured.

Allison smiled and began walking to the second-floor study. "For the moment. Where's Basil? He wanted to be in on this."

"He said he'd be up in a minute. Charlee talked him into reading a Dr. Seuss book."

"The kids love it when he reads to them -- he does a zillion different voices." She motioned for him to take the far chair before plunking into the plushness of the nearer one. "So, anything you'd like to know that the background check didn't turn up?" There was a faint glimmer of humor in her eyes.

Walt pursed his lips. "What makes you so sure I had one run?"

"Because I would if I were in your shoes. In fact, my father-in-law ran one on you. Retired or not, he still has plenty of contacts."

Walt allowed a small smile to surface. "You could have mentioned he worked for Scotland Yard."

"I didn't want to spoil the surprise," she deadpanned back before pulling a piece of paper from her pocket. "Let's see, Walter Sergei Skinner," Walt grimaced, "born January 17, 1951 -- exact place of birth unknown. Adopted by Magdalene Antoinette Dengel, bookkeeper, and Nicholas Conrad Skinner, owner/operator of an independent hardware store... raised in Austin, Texas. Accepted at University of Texas and stayed one semester before applying to the Marines. Shipped out to Vietnam after basic training. Sole survivor of your first platoon. Distinguished service record including two Purple Hearts and Medal of Honor in recognition of bravery while in Cambodia; field promotions to second lieutenant."

Basil hurried into the room, murmuring apologies. Instead of sitting behind the desk, he chose to stand next to his wife. Walt noted he tended to cast his eyes more in the direction of her dress' modified v-neckline than at the piece of paper from which she was reading.

Allison continued, "Completed a pre-law degree under the GI Bill at UT. Applied to the FBI Academy November 1974 and graduated from Quantico with honors April 1975. Promoted to Special Agent in Charge, February 1981, and later to Assistant Director of the Criminal Investigative Division, July 1989."

Allison paused for another breath and Walt noted Basil's attention was wandering to his wife's exposed left knee and calf as she absently rocked her crossed leg. "Married Clarissa Elizabeth Hoffmann on June 10, 1989, in Las Vegas. One child, Anthony Nikolai, born in Iowa, March 20, 1990."

Walt avoided looking at her and gazed at the desk. "I'm sure you're a little confused about Clare."

Basil roused himself from gaping at his wife and answered. "The report said she was a fellow agent and listed two death dates, no explanation given."

Walt stood up and walked to the wall of bookcases. He slowly related the Protection Program story and elicited several sympathetic murmurs from both of them. Allison stood up at the end and took his hand, squeezing it compassionately. "You're doing a good job with Anthony, Walt, especially considering you've only had about two months' experience as a parent."

Walt dropped his defenses for a second and stared into her eyes. He feared he'd exposed himself to the depths of his soul when Allison quickly glanced away and tried to retrieve her hand; he quickly released it.

"There's something else you both should know," Walt began, looking at Allison. "You resemble Clare. Your coloring, especially in that dress, is just like hers... well, the way she looked while in the program."

Basil sighed a little. "That explains the various odd looks I've seen you all giving Ally." What explains the looks you've been giving her, Walt uncharitably thought.

"At any rate, Walt, what did your check reveal?" Allison asked.

He leaned against the bookcases and removed a small notepad from the inner pocket of his sportcoat while she sat on the edge of the desk, Basil still distractedly by her side. In short order, he rattled off the pertinent facts of both their lives.

"I'm suitably impressed that you could recite all that without looking at your notes more," Allison observed when he'd finished. She also shot her husband a glance that looked to Walt like a warning before hastily standing back up, wrapping one arm around her waist and the other across her chest so that her knuckles were tucked under her chin.

Basil coughed a moment and added his two cents. "My transfer was supposed to be a one-year move, then two, then three. My parents were quite happy to see us leave, even if they did enjoy having their grandchildren in the same house."

Allison looked at her feet a moment. "I assume you also discovered we're both recovering alcoholics?"

"I was hoping one of you would bring it up."

She nodded. "I've been on the wagon six years and Basil's been on for two. We both belong to AA and attend as many meetings as our schedules allow... luckily the group is in London, too... I really hope if you decide not to let Anthony stay here, it won't be based on that. We both try very hard to provide a stable, loving environment for the kids. The few times that either of us has fallen off has never been in front of the children."

Allison paused and again Basil took over. "And in case you're too polite to ask, there haven't been any arrests for either of us for drunk and disorderly conduct because neither of us are loud or violent when we've been drinking." He took his wife's hand and kissed it, grinning broadly.

Allison shot Basil another look, something along the lines of 'stow it,' Walt thought. She cleared her throat and changed the subject, dropping her hand from her chin. "I'd ask what the check on Teresa turned up, but I already know. Charles, that is, my father-in-law, ran one, of course. So, uh, anything else you were hoping we'd bring up?"

Walt swallowed and wished Basil would keep his obvious appreciation of his wife to himself. "Payment?"

"You'll need to work that out with Teresa," she said.

"What about you? According to your work schedule, you'll be picking them up from school two days a week."

"I already told you, having Anthony here benefits us, too."

He started to protest. "Allison..."

"Don't bother, Walt. When she gets an idea into her head, a sledgehammer won't budge her," Basil contributed, wrapping his arm around her shoulders.

Allison stiffened ever so slightly before softening her expression. "Despite the fact that it's often a big cold world out there, I still choose to believe it's small enough for friends and neighbors to help one another out."

Walt narrowed his eyes, mostly at Basil's continued inane behavior, but managed to keep the stern aspect from his expression. "You win this round."

"You know, Trev would be ecstatic to tour the J. Edgar Hoover Building. My father took him on a tour of Scotland Yard right before he retired and he was fascinated," Basil related, hugging Allison to him.

Walt smiled vaguely. "I think I can manage that. I promised Anthony a tour and we still haven't done it. I'm sure his cousin would be interested, too. Would Friday morning work for you, uh, both?"

"'Strewth, I've got to work Friday," Basil commented. Too bad, Walt dryly replied to himself.

"Friday would be great, Walt. Thank you," Allison said, flashing a smile.


Anthony, Book Two: The Healing Power of Time
Author: Clare Skinner

Summary: Skinner and his son Anthony's lives become progressively more interwoven with the Wrights.

Monday, December 9, 1996

Walt finished reading the last report sitting on his desk and turned to gaze out the window. The snow fell lazily, blanketing the surrounding area with a shimmering brilliance as the various street lights began to slowly increase in brightness. He got up and looked more purposefully at the softness the snow created, noting how it coated the power lines and small trees along the street, how it appeared to protectively hug everything it touched.

He glanced at his watch and discovered it was only 4:30p.m. Outside, the starkness of the gray sky and the beginning of dusk contrasted oddly with the illuminating aspect of the snow -- visibility was definitely going to be compromised. This was the first big snow of the year and Walt noted that it had already accumulated a good four inches. Which basically meant that accidents would be profuse.

No sooner had this thought crossed his mind than he saw one on Pennsylvania Avenue. He shook his head and wandered to the outer office. Kimberly had a radio on and was listening to a local traffic report. .".. and the Anacostia Freeway has been closed from the East Capitol Street exit to Benning Road due to a multi-vehicle accident. Motorists are advised to take Route 50 to avoid the area." Kimberly turned the radio off as Walt scowled -- there went his usual route home.

"With the first big snowfall every year, I always ask myself why I moved here," Kimberly commented. "At least Buffalo has the proper equipment and semi-reasonable drivers." She paused as Walt removed the scowl from his face and replaced it with his usual, calmer countenance. "The weather report said to expect another one to two inches in the next few hours and as much as three inches overnight."

That'll be more than enough to paralyze this city for a good two days anyway, he thought. "Go home, Kimberly, before the mayor closes the roads and you're stuck here." She started to raise her eyes in question. "And I'll be right behind you."

He smiled inwardly thinking that just over two months ago, he wouldn't have cared if he were stuck in the building for days.

Two Plus Hours Later

Walt hesitated before turning the radio off after he pulled into Allison's driveway. His knuckles were more than likely white under the gloves from his excessive grip of the steering wheel -- the drive had been nasty.

He listened as the roads were now being closed to all but emergency traffic and sighed -- he still had a few miles to go to get home. He shut the car off and exited his vehicle, only to find his dress shoes coldly and wetly nestled in six plus inches of snow. Swearing under his breath, he shuffled to the house and rang the doorbell.

A few moments later Allison appeared at the door holding a dishrag. "Well, get in here before you catch 'P'neumonia." He grinned at her pronunciation and stepped inside. "Didn't your mother teach you to wear a hat?"

"Can't say that I look very good in a skull cap."

"Get your shoes off and toss them on the mat. No adult looks good in a skull cap, but you should at least wear something. Most of the body's heat is..."

He finished for her as he sat on the bench and removed his shoes. .".. lost through the head, I know. So do you practice what you preach?"

Walt surprised himself again with his banter. When he and Clare had 'met,' he was more outgoing and amiable, but now he was almost always reticent. It usually took him a long time to get familiar with someone, but somehow Allison brought out that side of him, just like Clare had.

She grinned impishly. "No, I prefer ear muffs. But then, I've got more hair to keep my head warm."

He fixed her with a modified glare as he stood up and started to remove his coat. "Why am I taking this stuff off? I should just collect Anthony and head home before it gets worse."

Allison took one of his hands and turned it palm down, revealing his still-present stress as they both observed his hands shaking. "I hardly think it would be good for you to jump back into the car; besides, the roads were just closed."

He resumed removing his coat as she started walking back to the kitchen. "With my ID I can get through."

She turned and raised her eyes at him, "I'm sure there are better ways to use your influence. Now haul your butt into the kitchen for dinner."

Walt flashed a smile at her before she wandered out of his sight. I can just hear Clare saying the same thing, he thought. He hung his coat up and stared outside again through one of the full-length sidelights. "Here's another thing we never got to do, mon amour, pound each other in a snowball fight," he murmured.

He continued to stare as his mind imagined the three of them outside... laughing, chasing, making snowmen, even making angels in the snow.

Walt felt a warm presence behind him as Anthony slipped a hand into his. Walt moved to one side so Anthony could look out with him. "Mom used to make really big snow forts," he softly proclaimed.

Walt gently pulled his son in front of him and lightly ruffled his curls. "We don't usually get enough snow for that here, but maybe we'll be able to make a snowman tomorrow -- especially since I'm sure the schools won't be open." The Hoover Building I'm not so sure about, though, he thought, wondering if he dared to impose on Allison the whole day. They slowly turned and walked down the hall, closing the inner door behind them.

"Where's Basil?" Walt asked as he sat at one end of the table, pausing to remove his suit jacket and hang it up on the back of the chair. As he loosened his tie, he also noticed that Charlee and Amelia each had an enormous stuffed animal on their laps.

"Stuck in Gaithersburg. He called about five minutes before you turned up... and his mood, needless to say, was less than sparkling." She looked toward the girls as they started to tease each other about their toys. "Dinner first, girls, play time later."

Walt inwardly sighed as he looked over the meal before him. Allison had insisted they stay for dinner the previous Monday and Tuesday and come right out and said there'd be two extra place settings for them any night. He'd happily resigned himself to eating with them two days a week -- at least he didn't have to cook those days. It also made him more determined to find a proper way to thank them for their hospitality.

He got along with both adult Wrights -- and the children, too, for that matter -- but found he'd felt more awkward hanging around the previous Wednesday, Thursday and Friday when Allison had been at work. Basil hadn't been overt with his affections toward Allison since that night before Thanksgiving, and otherwise he was great with the kids, personable, out-going...but he nettled Walt just the same.

Plus, Basil had an annoying tendency to scope out his hair every time he passed a mirror.

Walt mentally shook his head and glanced at Allison, wondering where she found the energy to work four, 10-hour shifts a week and still take care of four children. Walt smiled at her before starting in on his loaded plate. That was another thing she had in common with Clare -- the ability to balance her two vastly different roles.

And cook... it was indeed Allison who was the good cook. Nothing fancy, just like Clare, but plenty of flavorful, well-prepared dishes. Like tonight... the roast beef was tender and juicy with a faint taste of bay leaf. The mashed potatoes were creamy, but still had enough lumps to indicate that they weren't from a box. The glazed carrots had a tang of orange and the gravy was good enough to overindulge in, to hell with the fat content. He thoughtfully chewed a mouthful of seemingly plain noodles and tried to identify the flavor -- apple -- now how'd she do that, he wondered, feeling incredibly spoiled.

"Anthony, don't do that with your fork." Walt's reprimand was in response to Anthony's swooping the utensil through the air.

From the other end of the table, Allison cleared her throat and sent a stern look in the direction of her daughters as they continued to annoy each other.

"It's a NASA prototype spaceship, Dad."

Allison looked amused as Walt rolled his eyes at his son's imagination. "Well, as long as you're at the table, it's a fork."

"We got my California brother's Christmas presents today," Allison informed. "Andy and Joy encourage the kids to open the gifts early, mostly because they can never wait. Trev and Anthony spent part of the afternoon putting together a space station." She looked at the girls again as they were starting to become louder. "Behave, girls or you'll lose your presents."

"It's not a space station, Mom. It's an android base."

Allison raised an eyebrow. "I stand corrected, Trev. Now eat your food. The two of you will have plenty of time to play with it tonight."

"Tonight?" Walt echoed. What the?

He was just about to ask Allison about that comment when a squabble broke out between Charlee and Amelia. Both girls were grabbing for the other's stuffed animal with one hand while trying to maintain their hold on their own toy. Because of her two-year advantage, Charlee was winning.

"Charlotte Mary and Amelia Teresa, that is more than enough!" Allison rose from her chair and took the dog and cat from them. "You were warned, now I'm keeping Tabby and Patches until tomorrow." Both girls started to cry, pout, whine and snivel, not necessarily in that order. "Keep it up and you won't get them back till Wednesday."

Charlee and Amelia gazed at her with wide eyes before reflexively turning their faces toward Walt's chair and instantly dropping their heads as Basil wasn't there to save them. They slowly picked up their forks and began stabbing at their food. After another raised eyebrow from their mother, they began eating again.

Allison returned her attention to Walt as she sat down. "I believe you were on the verge of asking a question."

He was intrigued by what had just happened. How the girls had been all but reduced to tears with a raised voice, a stern look and the removal of their toys. In some ways, it was a performance worthy of him -- at least that was the effect the grapevine said he had on some of his subordinates. He shook his head still wondering why they'd been allowed to bring the animals to the table in the first place. "Um, yes. I was going to ask what you meant about 'tonight.'"

Anthony stared at his father with a perplexed expression. "We're staying overnight, Dad."

Walt raised his eyebrows. "Excuse me?"

"Sorry, I should have brought that up when you first got here," Allison commented. "I don't know about federal buildings, but the schools will be closed. It makes a certain degree of sense for at least Anthony to stay overnight, unless you want to drag him out of bed before dawn. We've definitely got room -- for both of you."

"That's very thoughtful of you, but we don't have any extra clothes with us."

Her offer awakened something in him, an almost-forgotten warm feeling of having someone look out for him. He'd had it with Clare, his parents, even with his Marine buddies. But trusting and relying only on himself had become so ingrained that experiencing the feeling again was strange. Especially since he hadn't allowed himself to trust her enough to part with a key to his house or the security code... whereas she had easily given him both. And he hardly thought Basil would be amused.

"You and Basil are built more or less alike and Trev's got plenty of clothes to share with Anthony. What size shoe do you wear?"

He arched an eyebrow at her, assuming she was going to ask him to shovel out her lengthly driveway. "I've got an old pair of running shoes in the car. And as far as either of us staying goes, I'll speak to the director tonight about whether the building will be open tomorrow."

She rolled her eyes. "If he's got any sense, it will be. And I wouldn't be surprised if a lot more snow comes down than they predicted."

The rest of dinner passed smoothly and the kids scampered off to their respective rooms afterward. Both Charlee and Amelia tried to sneak out of the kitchen with the stuffed animals. A stern look from Allison stopped them in their tracks.

Walt smiled to himself again and thought she'd probably do well in law enforcement herself. He started carrying plates to the kitchen island while Allison moved Ian in his basket further into the work area.

"Walt, you don't have to help." He fixed her with his own determined look. "All right, be that way."

Walt proceeded to clear the table of dishes while she grabbed all the leftovers. He picked Tabby and Patches up and moved them onto a chair, shaking his head. "My mother never let me to bring toys to the table," he mumbled, belatedly realizing that his voice hadn't been that low.

Allison paused and smiled at his uncomfortable expression. "Generally I don't either, but the girls informed me they weren't coming to dinner without them. I tried to employ some 'lose the battle to win the war' strategy and it backfired... And you'll have to do much better than that to offend me."

He relaxed his expression and figured she was probably having a hard time understanding him. Why he seemed so hot and cold with his comfort levels. Why he'd start to loosen up and then close himself off again.

"They would have been fine if they'd both had the same thing," she went on, "but you know... the grass is always greener. I'm just happy they didn't get Barbie dolls."

"What's wrong with those?"

"Are you kidding? They're anatomically obscene. It's bad enough you can't turn on the television or open a magazine without having society cram 'perfection' down your throat. I refuse to allow my impressionable daughters to be inundated with the 'thin is beautiful' mentality."

Walt gave her a few seconds to get down from her soapbox and sought a new subject. "I was considering getting Anthony a puppy for Christmas. Do you think he's old enough to take responsibility?"

"Absolutely, as long as you're sure he wants one. And don't mention puppies or kittens too loud around here. All my kids love 'em," she cooed at Ian and was rewarded with a one-toothed gurgling grin, "but Basil's allergic to pet fur so we can't have either. Same thing with pine needles, so we have to stick with an artificial tree." She paused again to tickle Ian. "In fact, that's something you can do tomorrow if you're still here -- put the tree up. The boys can help you with that and decorating it while the girls help Teresa and me bake cookies."

"Gee, who was your slave last year?" The instant the words were out of his mouth a flush of embarrassment crossed his face. He was mortified.

Allison laughed as she threw the dishrag at him. "I knew it, you're a closet smart-ass." He allowed a sheepish smile to cross his face. "You know, it takes fewer facial muscles to smile than it does to frown. Just think of how many premature aging lines you can thwart by loosening up, at least outside the office."

He smiled more broadly just as Ian started crying. "Are you like this with everybody?"

She picked Ian up and wandered to the table. "Like what? I've always been extroverted, a people person, the class clown." She turned her head briefly as she began getting Ian settled. "And when you smile like that, it's easy to see where Anthony gets his."

Allison sighed as Ian began suckling. Walt half-looked at her back and swallowed awkwardly. "Are you feeding him?"

She dropped her head partly back and to the side. "Yeeees. Why? Does it bother you?" She didn't give him time to answer. "My back's to you -- you can't see anything anyway." He started to stammer and focused his attention on the dishwasher. "Jeez, men really are just bigger versions of boys. If you're that embarrassed, go make your phone call." Walt mumbled a reply and beat a hasty retreat.

Walt hung up the phone and wasn't entirely sure what to do. McIntire had told him that the building would be officially closed given the current eight inches and the revised forecast of six to eight more expected overnight.

Walt realized there was no longer had any reason for either him or Anthony to stay... but doing so held definite appeal. Another couple of home-cooked meals, fresh-baked cookies... mmm, he thought. "That's charitable, you idiot," he muttered, this time making sure his voice was low. Think of Allison as your personal chef, he continued silently. He heard thumping feet on the stairs and Anthony appeared in the doorway a few seconds later.

"Are we staying, Dad?" Walt gazed at the hopeful expression of his son and decided that as long as they made themselves useful, it'd be all right.

"Yeah, we are."

"Hot dog! Hey, Trev," Anthony hollered, racing back to the stairs. "Can I have the top bunk?"

Walt shook his head in amusement and wandered to the doorway. He saw Allison approach out of the corner of his eye and quickly turned away, afraid of what he might see.

"Oh, relax. I'm burping him," she announced, pausing in the procedure long enough to hand him an extra garage-door opener. "You'd better get your car inside before it's buried. And we'll be in the drawing room, in case you want to avoid us," she teased.

He managed a small, almost uncomfortable smirk back at her before redonning his outerwear. As he pulled on his gloves, he wondered why what he'd not really seen in the kitchen had bothered him. It was clearly a natural act... of course, watching your wife was quite different than a friend. He smiled, thinking that Allison was beginning to move past his barriers and become just that.

He sighed thinking she and Clare probably would have been very good friends. And if that whole mess had been avoided seven and a half years ago...

Walt spent the next hour and a half wondering where Allison got all her energy and jokingly wondered if he could get her to teach a course in efficiency. In that time she oversaw baths -- well, Walt oversaw the boys -- picked up the house, did two loads of laundry, read the girls a bedtime story and put Ian to bed.

When she reappeared in the family room at nine with Trevor, Anthony and a big bowl of popcorn, Walt thought she was going to settle in for the football game. Instead she picked up a box and started writing Christmas cards while he put his briefcase aside.

The boys lasted through the first half before they fell asleep on one of the sofas. Allison started to get up to carry Trevor to bed, but Walt shot her a 'sit down' glance. "I'll take both of them up... why don't you just relax?"

She stuck her tongue out at him and went back to writing cards. He shook his head as he carried each boy to bed. When he came back down the second time, she was stretched out on one of the sofas and the light was turned off over the table where she'd been working. "Giving up for the night?"

She leaned forward and snagged some of the leftover popcorn. "In a manner of speaking. I'm done with the cards anyway."

Walt helped himself to more popcorn, too. "How many do you send out?"

Allison leaned back against the cushions. "About 150 personal ones, and each of Basil's clients gets one as well." Walt raised his eyes. "It's not that bad. Everybody is on a mailing list on the computer and we print out labels plus a note to go in the cards. All I end up doing is hand-addressing the greeting and signing our names. Well, and enclosing the photo of the kids. Sealing the envelopes and stamping them is the pain part. I let the kids do that." She picked up an envelope from the floor and tossed it to him. "There, I just saved 32 cents."

He smiled almost roguishly and opened it. The picture was only of the kids, and the three with teeth were showing them off brilliantly. Trevor was holding Ian as Charlee and Amelia stood next to him. "How come you and Basil aren't in the shot?"

"We were keeping the kids entertained. Besides, I photograph horribly and I don't want visible proof that I need to drop 15 pounds."

He arched an eyebrow as the game got back under way and he grabbed more popcorn. "I thought you said society shouldn't be pushing bone-thin."

"They shouldn't, but I'm about to pass the point of referring to myself as 'voluptuous.'" Walt all but choked on his popcorn as she continued. "Speaking of size, I think your waist is a little smaller than Basil's, but the underwear should fit. The socks will anyway."

Walt felt his cheeks reddening, as he was already wearing borrowed sweats. "Do you always have extra packages hanging around?" he asked as he deliberately kept his gaze away from her.

"I tend to buy very practical presents for Basil... he's death on undergarments. What the hell do you guys do to 'em, anyway?"

The blush deepened and he began stammering, "I, uh, don't, uh, know what you mean."

"Yeah, yeah. I probably hit on some sacred guy secret. Like what you all find so fascinating about skimpy women's lingerie." Walt's color was quickly approaching boiled lobster. "I swear Basil manages to come up with trashier stuff every year. Pretty soon he'll give me a wrapped empty package."

He swallowed the nonexistent saliva in his mouth and forced himself to reply, feeling he needed to defend his gender. "Not all guys are fascinated by it. Some of us actually prefer nightshirts."

"So you can use your imagination?" He hesitantly nodded, amazed this conversation was taking place, sure Basil would have a fit even though Allison's tone was clearly sarcastic, not at all flirty. "Are you going to try to sell me swampland, too?" He allowed a small smile to cross his lips. "Not to change the subject, but I believe I need to shift some laundry. Want me to bring you back anything from the kitchen?"

"What, now you're trying to be my slave?" The blush returned, plus.

She shook her head as she paused at the doorway. "You really are a smart-ass, you know." As she left his view, he mind went back to when Clare had called him that... during that football game.

+ + + + + +

Monday, October 9, 1996

Walt rolled his eyes as he stripped off his shirt and pulled her back against his muscular chest. "What are you planning to do Sunday -- take the TV to the state park?"

He went back to nuzzling her neck while his hands moved to her breasts and mons.

"Ahh -- it's a bye week... you don't think I check these things? -- mmm -- Shit, I can't believe Stoyanovich missed the extra point."

"Nobody's perfect," he murmured in her ear and plunged his fingers inside her.

She bit her lip. "Yes. A holding call against Pittsburgh -- uh -- line up and try it again -- uh -- it's up and it's -- AHH!"

"I think I finally succeeded in getting your full attention."

Clare leaned back against his shoulder as the aftershocks faded and smacked his arm. "Smart-ass. It's a wonder you didn't start singing 'I Got You, Babe.'"

Walt scooted Clare to one side and stood up to shuck his jeans and briefs. "I don't sing."

"Like hell you don't. I've heard you in the shower, Walt."

He continued to deny that he sang as he pushed the coffee table to the wall and pulled Clare to the floor... she wouldn't stay put. "Are you nuts? The floor is dirty and hard." She scrambled back up to perch on the loveseat, all the while keeping her eyes glued to the television.

He rolled his eyes. "Well, that loveseat isn't big enough and I somehow doubt I'll get you out of this room until the game is over."

"Damn straight." She absently pulled the cushions off the loveseat and pulled out the twin-size bed within. Walt rolled out of the way, barely.

"You could have mentioned that pulled out." Clare ignored him as she watched the game and waited for him to get on the bottom. "Aren't you going to lay down?"

She dragged her eyes to him momentarily. "I'm waiting for you."

" I'm not getting on the bottom. If I let you be on top, you won't pay any attention to me."

"And if I get on the bottom I won't be able to see anything."

He shook his head in exasperation and rubbed his forehead before reaching down to grab his clothes. "Forget it. I can't believe you rate a stupid football game higher than your own husband."

She finally turned her head to him and his childlike pout. "Oh, please. If the roles were reversed, you wouldn't want me interrupting your precious evening. And if that pout doesn't work for Anthony, it isn't going to work for you. I might also add that if you stop and think about it, being on the bottom isn't so bad. Just think what my game energy could mean to you." Clare's lips curved upward in a devious smile.

Short of whacking off, he knew he wasn't going to get any satisfaction if he didn't give in to her. He threw the clothes back on the floor in exaggerated disgust and climbed on the mattress. She instantly climbed on top of him and started rubbing her body against him, quickly rejuvenating his receding erection. As she settled on him suddenly, his head rose off the bed. He nearly said 'Just make sure you don't break anything I'll need later,' but realized that wasn't necessarily funny under the circumstances.

Clare leaned down and kissed him long and hard. Then her attention was claimed by the game again. "Shit! Get him!" Her energy was transferred to her hips, though, and Walt reluctantly admitted to himself that this wasn't so bad after all.

+ + + + + +

"Hey, you!" Walt turned his attention to the doorway as Allison stood there holding a laundry basket. "I'm heading up to bed. The alarm has been set, so just turn everything off when you're done. And get up whenever you feel like it; breakfast is a do-it-yourself affair during the week. Good night."

Allison started to turn when both heard the kitchen door open, shortly followed by stomping feet. "What the...?" she mumbled and dropped the basket, Walt hot on her heels as she made her way down the hall. The overhead light was on and Allison shook her head in surprise as she beheld her husband. Walt noted that he was on the receiving end of a brief scowl that appeared to combine irritation with jealousy.

"Basil, what are you doing here?"

He smirked at his wife as she hurriedly moved to the security panel before the alarm went off. "The last time I checked, I lived here, Ally." He cast another sidelong glance toward Walt and Walt felt more awkward at wearing the other man's clothes.

"You know what I meant, smart-ass," she retorted before cautiously kissing him. Walt noted she was remaining a certain distance away from Basil and belatedly realized she probably didn't want to get her sock-clad feet wet from the melting snow around her husband.

"If you meant how did I get around the closed roads, I stuck to secondary ones and didn't see hide nor hair of anyone, period. If you meant why did I bother, I prefer to sleep in my own bed." His expression was close to a leer.

Walt saw that same 'stow it' look on Allison's face. "Yeah, well, you're an idiot as far as I'm concerned... at least you had that loaner vehicle, you'd never have made it in that stupid sports car. Although you still could have easily landed upside down in a ditch and froze to death," she lectured.

Now that Basil had all his outerwear clothes off, he pulled her against him and solidly kissed her. "Not a chance. I lead a charmed life." Allison danced around and smacked his arm as her feet did get wet.

Walt realized his presence was clearly superfluous now and he cleared his throat. "Um, now that Basil's here, you don't need me." Basil narrowed his eyes and Walt swore at himself for his unfortunate choice of words. "I mean he can take care of the driveway. I'll, uh, get Anthony and go."

"You most certainly will not, Walt," she admonished. "Anthony's asleep, you're comfortable," -- not really, he thought -- "and only a 'maroon' would go out when they didn't have to in this weather." She raised her eyes specifically at her husband as he grinned back at her, unrepentant.

"She's probably right, Walt. Besides, using the snowblower isn't one of my most favorite activities. I'm more than willing to let you do it. Especially since all the neighbors are going to no doubt try to con me into doing their drives," Basil admitted, nudging his shoes off.

Walt felt very uneasy about staying now, but realized that short of being out and out rude, he was stuck. He decided they'd stay around long enough to remove snow and then beat a hasty retreat.

Tuesday, December 10, 7:13a.m.

Walt woke up and felt two sets of piercing eyes trained on him. He reached for his glasses and discovered both Charlee and Amelia were staring at him, hands on hips. Charlee's intense gray eyes were wide open, as were Amelia's luminous emerald ones. "You left the toilet seat up." Charlee's little-girl accusatory tone was extenuated by her waving of her finger at him.

Before he could reply, Amelia mimicked Charlee's tone and mannerism. "I 'most fell in."

Walt forced himself not to laugh, as the expression on both their faces was quite serious. He swallowed quickly and utilized his best apologetic tone. "I'm very sorry, it won't happen again, I promise."

Amelia smiled shyly, easily won over, while Charlee gave him one last withering look. "I hope not."

"Charlotte Mary, that tone isn't necessary. Walt isn't used to sharing a bathroom with two little girls. Now both of you leave him alone and get dressed for breakfast." The girls looked back toward their father as he stood in the middle of the bathroom that joined their room and the guest room -- they went running past him.

"A word of caution, Walt." Walt glanced at Basil and waited, several possible endings to the phrase running through his mind. "The girls have been known to surprise occupants in the shower." Visions of that nearly caused Walt to shudder in embarrassment. "You'd better lock both doors when you go in. Despite repeated warnings, uh, they don't necessarily have enough sense to steer clear."

"I'll keep that in mind," Walt replied, wondering if he hadn't just been given a warning about something else.

Some Four Hours Later

The kitchen was a beehive of activity. Spread across the table were cooling cookies of pineapple raisin and spice. Charlee was busily shaking a jar of green coconut. When she finished, she poured it out into a shallow pan to join the yellow and red on the corner of the island and went back to unwrapping Hershey's Chocolate Kisses. Teresa was forming her peanut butter batter into balls while Amelia happily stood on a chair to sprinkle chopped walnuts on the Scandinavian logs Allison was making. They all turned their heads in the direction of the French doors as they heard the guys coming back in.

Basil opened the door, rolling his eyes as Walt appeared to be in the middle of an argument with Anthony. Trevor walked silently in with lowered eyes as Anthony followed with a pronounced pout. "I'm not going to explain it to you again and I don't want to hear any more about it." Walt closed the door and pushed the borrowed ball cap further back on his head.

"Problem?" Allison asked as she wiped her hands on a dishrag.

Walt rolled his eyes as he leaned down to remove his shoes. "Not really."

The boys both continued walking toward the hall. Allison issued a mild command. "Uh-uh. Remove boots before you track snow all through the house, you two." They both went back to the door and removed the items. Basil unlaced his boots and kicked them off.

Anthony kept fixing Walt with a furtive look and was continuing the argument mentally. Walt fired several 'knock-it-off' looks back at him and mentally told him to do the same.

"You can help yourselves to one of each kind of cookie a piece," Allison offered with an eyebrow askance.

"Thanks, Mom," Trevor replied and snagged two of each before handing Anthony some.

Anthony fired Walt one last look. "You're not fair!" he shouted and proceeded to stomp out of the room. He slid as he hit a patch of melting snow and reached for the island to steady himself, knocking off two of the pans of coconut. The surprise of the pans falling caused him to lose his grip and he landed on his bottom on the floor.

"Anthony Nikolai Skinner! You apologize to Allison for making a mess right now."

Walt found himself on the receiving end of an irritated and surprised look before Allison leaned over Anthony.

"I'm sorry," he blurted out.

"It was an accident, sweetie. You don't have anything to be sorry about." Allison's voice was smooth as silk. "Are you okay? Did you hurt yourself?" He shook his head no. "That's all that matters." She helped him up and kissed his forehead before ruffling his curls.

"All right, boys, upstairs and into some drier clothes," Basil commanded as his wife stood up. He winked at Allison as she turned her attention to Teresa.

"Teresa, why don't you and the girls take a break," she suggested.

Teresa gathered Charlee and Amelia and followed the males out. Walt was treated to a disapproving glance by the older woman before they moved out of sight.

Walt started to walk past the island but Allison stopped him. "You're not going anywhere."

"I was going to get a broom to clean this up." He turned back to her and she reached up to remove the ball cap. Walt looked quizzically at her just before she proceeded to whack him on the head with it. "Ow! Why are you hitting me?" He took the cap away from her as anger came seeping up.

Her eyes reflected a similar feeling. "Because you're acting like an idiot. Little experience raising children or not, you never yell at a child for something that was clearly not their fault. Jeez, Walt, you weren't even concerned with whether he was all right. What the hell's the matter with you?"

She waited expectantly for him to answer. He started to say one thing and instantly thought better of it. He could hardly say that Anthony's insistent telepathic argument had pissed him off to the point of losing his temper. And he realized from all of their points of view, he'd come off in the wrong. "I'm sorry, you're right."

"I'm not the one who deserves the apology. What were the two of you arguing about, anyway?"

Walt took a deep breath, "Two of your neighbors tried to give Anthony and Trevor money for their services. I wouldn't let them take it and Anthony got mad."

Allison groaned. "We get maybe two storms worthy of using the snowblower a year; if the neighbors want to give them money for their services, let them. Where's the harm in that? It certainly makes the neighbors feel better."

"I don't want Anthony to expect monetary rewards for doing a good deed."

She rolled her eyes and smacked his arm. "Oh, for God's sake. Did either of them knock on the door and ask for remuneration?" Walt slowly shook his head as he rubbed his arm. "Uh huh. Anthony is a six-and-a-half-year-old genius. He's enough intellectually advanced not to expect a reward -- not to mention the fact that Clare seems to have done a very good job of raising him as a selfless, giving child. Now get upstairs and apologize to your son before I feel obligated to beat you some more with that hat."

Walt felt a smile escaping his lips. She was right, he'd blown the money out of proportion -- of course, she could have let him know that in a calmer manner. He walked to the doorway and turned back, holding up the cap. "That's another reason why I hate these stupid caps. Thanks for setting me straight... next time, though, could you find a gentler way to do it?" She stuck her tongue out and went past him for the broom.

By three in the afternoon, the tree was up and partially decorated. Allison had talked the Skinners into staying for lunch -- well, bullied would have been more accurate -- and Basil had conned Walt into helping with the tree. Mrs. Wright came down the stairs with Amelia, fresh from her nap. "Looks good," Allison called from the doorway.

Walt had already discussed the enormous size of the tree with Basil in an effort to come up with small talk. He'd managed to avoid a series of lengthly, awkward pauses with conscious effort and had reached the point of being able to converse fairly freely with the other man.

"Did you get all the lights on?" Allison asked.

"Yes," her husband droned, flashing a knowing smile at Walt. "And I didn't even have to stand on my ear this year."

Allison rolled her eyes. "How would the two of you feel about taking the kids outside for an hour or so?" Amelia started jumping up and down as the boys put down their boxes of ornaments and looked hopeful.

Basil sighed with exaggeration and moved around to the front of the tree. "After putting up with my slave-driver wife, you're going to think going to work is a vacation, Walt."

The front wall of the fort was about knee-high and the two side walls tapered down to about ankle height -- well, dimensions for the adults' bodies, anyway. Walt's and Basil's attention kept getting divided as the boys called for help with the fort and the girls wanted help with their snowman. Between the two projects, there wasn't much snow left in one area of the front yard.

When the boys were satisfied with the height of the fort, they set about to make a tremendous number of snowballs. The girls were similarly finished and decided to make a series of snow angels in the still-covered section. In all, about 15 inches had fallen... quite a substantial amount for the DC area. Walt and Basil watched all four children happily playing in their brightly colored snowsuits.

"If there's one thing having a couple of kids does for you, it's keep you active," Basil volunteered before getting off the steps to fix a sagging section of fort wall.

Walt smiled and found his mind drifting, thinking of what could have been:

Walt imagined that he was building the snow fort's wall higher at Anthony's insistence. "Come on, Dad. Hurry up, they're beating us." Walt smiled as he looked over to Clare, Jeremy and Natalie... their fort did look bigger. "It's not fair! Mom's got Jeremy and Lee and we're stuck with Becky."

Before Walt could comment, almost three-year-old Becky picked up a snowball and smacked her brother with it from a few feet away. He howled as the cold, wet mass stuck to his corduroys. "Well, she's got great aim; we just need to work on her distance. And next time, wear your snow pants."

Becky beamed at her father and stuck her tongue out at Anthony before going back to making more snowballs.

"Dissension in the ranks over there?" Clare hollered.

"We're fine, thank you," Walt answered. "How much more time do we have?"

Clare pushed her coat sleeve and glove apart to look at her watch. "Another minute. You better be ready, Lieutenant, 'cause we're gonna kick your collective butts."

"Oh, yeah? Care to make a small wager?" Walt furiously banked more snow against the wall while Anthony and Becky made more snowballs. A lone one sailed through the air and hit Walt on the head. "Hey!" He shook the snow from his head and partly shivered, glad he'd given in and worn a hat.


"It wasn't me, Mom, Lee threw it."

Five-year-old Natalie attempted to look innocent.

"If you break the rules, young lady, we might have to forfeit." Clare turned her attention toward Walt, Anthony and Becky. "Interesting how the girls seem to have the best aim."

Clare finished the wall and made a quick few snowballs before looking at her watch again. "Time," she shouted.

The air was eerily silent before volley after volley of snowballs flew back and forth, each landing with a soft thud as they connected with the ground, the walls or a combatant. Both sides taunted the other with insults, trying to land a direct hit.

After a few minutes, both fort walls were starting to sag -- a result of 10 minutes' worth of preparation. Clare rallied her troops and led a direct offensive, barreling through the wall and knocking Walt over. She sat back grinning as all four kids decided to pile on him.

"Do ya give up, Dad?" five-year-old Jeremy asked.

He nodded and the kids started to get off. Walt seized the moment and rolled over, knocking all four off balance. The kids laughed themselves silly and scampered away. Clare's eyes lit up as Walt moved toward her, grabbed an ankle and gently pulled her to him. "I believe we won, Lieutenant," she boasted. "You'd better have a talk with your tactical officer about strategy."

He arched an eyebrow and climbed onto her. His expression got serious as she rubbed her stomach. "You and the baby all right?"

Clare smiled at the concern on his face and in his voice. "Fine, mon cher. Skinner number 5 just decided to make his or her presence known."

He smiled back and ran his hand over her stomach. "I can't believe how fast you popped out with this one."

"Yeah well, if the sonogram had shown another set of twins you would have been in big trouble."

He smiled broader and helped Clare to her feet. "But if we had twins now, this could be your last pregnancy."

She arched one eyebrow. "What makes you think this isn't my last one?"

His smile turned more devious. "Because we need to have an even number of kids for snowball fights."

The words were barely out of his mouth when the two were pelted by Anthony, Lee, Jeremy and Becky.

... It might have been.

Walt stirred from his fantasy as several snowballs whizzed past him and two hit the mark. He got up quickly from the steps, not sure who the culprit was, but ran toward the boys as they looked the guiltiest. He tackled both and wrestled them to the ground. Charlee and Amelia ran over and jumped on him, instantly trying to tickle him as Basil watched with an amused expression.

Allison rubbed her hands up and down her forearms as she came out on the porch to call them in. "Time to come in, kids, big ones too."

Walt smiled sadly as the kids jumped up and ran to the porch. It hit him again just how much he'd missed in those seven and a half years.

Tuesday, February 19, 1997

Walt brought his car to a stop on the narrow road within the cemetery. He picked up the bouquet of yellow roses and exited, meandering to Clare's grave. His mind was filled with images of her -- today she would have been 37.

The ground squished under his feet, the recent rain making everything soggy. He stopped a few feet away as he saw the other bouquet. It was the second one he'd found and he doubted he'd find out who had put it there this time either. The bouquet wasn't extravagant... whoever was leaving them knew Clare's taste. It was a simple grouping of white carnations with a few yellow rosebuds.

Walt squatted in front of the headstone and laid his flowers next to the other ones. He'd brought Anthony to visit the grave twice, but it seemed to upset him, so Walt had started coming alone. Allison had said that Anthony would probably feel more comfortable going on his own terms and that his reluctance to go now didn't mean that he didn't love his mother.

Walt reached out to touch the stone as a gentle warmth spread through his body -- he hoped that didn't mean he was catching the cold that was currently sweeping HQ. He sighed... it was getting easier; the passage of four months was finally starting to dull the pain.

"I can't believe Anthony will be seven next month, mon amour. Time seems to be moving so fast. He's grown another half-inch."

Walt looked away and listened to the wind whistling through the bare trees. Sometimes, when the air was completely still, he could swear he could hear Clare's voice. He'd nearly told Mulder, but was afraid he'd want to set up a bunch of equipment on the grave or some other such nonsense. Walt waited for the wind to die down and hoped for another such moment. After a few seconds, he was rewarded by a faint murmur, by a resonance that sounded like 'mon cher.' He shook his head and wondered what else he could talk himself into if he tried.

"Allison is helping me with a birthday party at some place called Discovery Zone," he continued aloud. "She said the kids all love it and your family is coming down for it, too. Anthony's been talking nonstop for the last week about seeing Elliot again. It's a wonder Trevor isn't feeling jealous."

He ducked his head again. "I know I've said this before, but I wish you could have met the Wrights. They've helped us so much over the last few months. I really think you and Allison would have been best 'mates,' as she'd say. I've come to rely on her far more than I probably should, but she's become one of the best friends I've ever had. She even made me a completely decadent double chocolate cake for my birthday."

He wiped away the tears beginning to form and stood. "I love you, mon amour. I love you and I miss you," he whispered, feeling that warmth again before turning carefully and peregrinating back to the car.

Walt was so consumed by his thoughts that he never noticed the form several hundred feet away watching him.

Walt entered the front door of Allison's house and hung up his trenchcoat, easing his shoes off and leaving them on the ever-present mat. He wondered where Basil was; he seldom beat him to the house on a Tuesday. Walt opened the inner door and smiled as he heard music blaring from the family room. He smiled broader as the musical group was actually familiar to him, not one of those ridiculously named currently popular ones, but one from the 1970s and 1980s.

He reached the doorway and watched the kids dancing around, singing at the top of their lungs -- and occasionally getting the words right. Allison knew the words and was unself-consciously belting them out as she danced with Ian. Her voice wasn't quite record-label quality, but was fairly pleasant and he'd heard far worse in his time. He shook his head as most of her dancing was from the waist down, her hands occupied holding her laughing, happy son.

Walt looked over to Anthony and chuckled as he was wearing an over-sized pair of black sunglasses and being a ham. He also seemed to have inherited Clare's sense of rhythm and when he managed to sing the right words, Walt was surprised to discover his son had a good voice, too. He could just hear Clare saying he got that from him.

They were just starting another chorus of 'Got To Get You Into My Life' when Anthony saw him and came running over yelling, "Dad!" Allison turned and smiled... and kept singing anyway. "Come on, Dad," Anthony urged, tugging on his jacket sleeve.

Walt's eyes were alight with amusement and a touch of trepidation. He knew if Allison got into this, he'd have great difficulty avoiding thoroughly embarrassing himself. "I can't dance, Anthony, or sing."

Allison raised an eyebrow as the song ended and she put Ian on the floor. "Can't, don't or don't want to?"

That's it, he thought, I'm sunk. "Maybe all of the above." He grimaced as he saw the steely glint in her eyes.

"Well, I'll just have to teach you."

He matched the determined look and steadfastly refused to take her hand. The last thing he needed was to have Basil come 'waltzing' in and find him dancing with his wife. I'm not suicidal, he mentally said. "Two left feet permanently encased in cement, Allison."

She arched an eyebrow, recognized the stalemate and picked up Ian again instead. "Well, then watch the kids and me... maybe you'll learn something."

He sat on the arm of the nearest sofa and watched the kids gyrating all over the place. "And that would be how to pull a muscle, right?"

She flashed him an exasperated look and started dancing once more. Walt kept his attention on the kids for a few moments, then found his eyes straying to Allison. He was quickly transported back to Iowa and Clare, back to the night of their dinner out and the slow, close dance at home afterward. He closed his eyes in memory.

Walt opened his eyes and fixed Allison's general direction with a warm, loving expression. An expression that Basil fleetingly caught from his just-arrived position in the door frame.

Walt looked startled as Basil coughed. "Ally, I need to talk to you a minute," Basil announced.

She didn't like the passing flash in his eyes. "Okay, kids, go upstairs and wash your hands for dinner, please." As they left, Walt excused himself to do likewise.

When he came back a few moments later, Basil was gone and Allison was unhappily staring at the stereo equipment, chewing her lower lip while her thumb and index finger were at the corners of her mouth.

"Is everything all right?" Walt intoned, knowing definitively that he was in hot water with Basil.

She turned to him and ineffectually tried to smile. "Basil has been given a promotion to management. They want him at the home office next week."

Walt felt his heart sink unbelievably deep. Home office meant either New Jersey, or worse, England. He swallowed the lump in his throat. "Which home office?"

Allison lowered her head, "England."

Walt rightly assumed dinner would be incredibly stilted and opted to avoid it. He briefly explained the news to a confused Anthony and took him to the vestibule right after, Allison following with the boy's book bag. "I'll talk to you later, Walt, about all this," she said. He nodded, no longer surprised at the feeling of loss the move was creating.

Anthony turned to Allison and hugged her fiercely. "Don't go," he whispered in her ear. In his mind, he was wondering why people bothered to get close, when they always seemed to be leaving. Death or moving, did it really matter? All he knew was that he would be losing his friends again.

He felt a little better as he stole a glance into Allison's mind and 'heard' her say 'I don't want to leave, sweetheart.' He released her and she kissed his forehead. Walt took his hand and they left.

They'd barely cleared the block when Anthony began airing his concerns. "Why do they have to move, Dad? Allison doesn't want to go."

Walt slowed as a car was trying to back into the street. "Adults don't always get to do what they want, Anthony." Walt reflexively waved back to the driver. "Sometimes we have to do what's best for everybody instead of just us." And I don't want them to go, either, he thought.

"What'll happen to me once they move?"

alt="Anthony Book Oh, shit, Walt thought, we'll have to go through all those damned interviews again. "We'll have to find someone else to watch you... Maybe Mrs. Fanning will still watch you." I hope so, he thought, keep one constant in his life. They continued home in silence.

"The kids are watching a video," Allison said as she closed the bedroom door and carried the baby monitor into the room. "Ian will probably wake up any time, though."

She sat in one of the bedside chairs and deliberately crossed her legs, silently indicating that she wasn't planning to be receptive to anything but talk.

"I know the timing isn't perfect, Ally, but it's a great opportunity. I couldn't turn it down."

She looked at him as he sat on the edge of the bed and felt annoyance building. "You could have at least asked for time to think it over. You shouldn't have made the decision for all of us without talking to me first."

He got up and knelt before her. "You're right, luv, I'm sorry. I just thought you'd be happy. You can stay home with the kids full-time now, like you said you wanted to. Remember how much you loved spending your days in the park pushing Trev in the pram?"

Allison did remember those days. With Basil and both his parents working, she'd had little to do with her day but wander around London. But he was right, she'd enjoyed going to the park, rain or not. There was a special closeness between her and Trevor, not just because he was the eldest, but because she'd spent so much more time with him. Time she felt Charlee, Amelia and now Ian weren't getting, despite her efforts. She'd gone out of her way to talk her supervisors into her present schedule so she wouldn't have to put the kids in daycare -- but some days, she felt like it wasn't nearly enough.

"You're right, B, but I hate the thought of taking Trev out of school mid-year. And what about all the time we put into making this house livable?"

"Like I said, luv, the timing isn't perfect. But we can find a new house that we love just as much. We won't be staying with my parents this time and the kids will adjust." He gingerly removed her loafers and started massaging her feet, knowing full well how her body reacted to nimble fingers against the soles.

Allison stifled the beginnings of a moan as Basil repeatedly hit that sensitive spot. "How long would we be staying in England this time, B? A year, five, more? I don't want the kids to just start getting comfortable then have to pull up stakes again."

She knew he'd stop if she pulled her feet away... and she knew what she was tacitly agreeing to by not.

Basil was definitely encouraged and slowly began to move his hands up her legs. "I don't know how long we'll be there. In fact, there's an outside chance after six months they'll transfer me to the home office in New Jersey."

Allison moaned despite herself and endeavored to focus on the subject at hand. "What sense does it make for all of us to move to England if we could end up back in the States in six months?"

"You're probably right about waiting here," he murmured as he coaxed her legs apart then began to massage her thighs. "But I'd miss you and the little buggers too much."

She knew it was too late to turn back now and completely relaxed her body to the touch of his tremendous hands. "You'd see us around Easter, we'd still go to your parents like we always do. And you'd come back for Ian's first birthday," she said as her voice got fainter.

"Seven to ten days is hardly the same as six months, luv." He tentatively stroked a breast through the thin fabric of her casual dress as she helped two of his fingers slide between the buttons.

Allison pulled her knees under her chin and sighed, watching Basil's retreating, naked form enter the bathroom. She felt a dampness against her thighs and mentally swore at her breasts. She'd finished weaning Ian two weeks previous, but milk was still there... especially after she'd allowed Basil to 'coerce' it.

Well, she told herself, feeling like a temptress, it was worth it for the concession she'd received from him. She leaned back against the pillows with a languid expression, having gotten more out of their 'encounter' than usual.

When they'd first met, the sex had been phenomenal... but after they'd been married a few months, it had started to peter out. At first she'd assumed that morning sickness was a factor, then the stress of moving out of the country and finally she'd thought she simply felt 'weird' about sex at his parents' house.

The real reason had accidentally surfaced when she'd had several drinks one night shortly after Trevor had been weaned. Alcohol... Allison had come to the startling and very uncomfortable conclusion that sex was simply better for her when she'd been drinking. A substantial portion of her active sexuality had coincided with alcohol consumption and since she knew positively that she loved her husband, she assumed that the depth of her feelings for a partner therefore didn't matter much.

It had been a humbling realization... and one she'd kept from Basil. His ego was fragile enough where sex was concerned. So what if sex wasn't earth-shattering? She could -- and did -- make due with the sensational massages Basil gave as foreplay. And occasionally, she'd get lucky, like earlier.

The languid expression returned just before Basil exited the bathroom. "Oh, Ally... how long is that video?"

She forced a seductive smile and told him what he wanted to hear. "Long enough for a quickie." Allison lounged further against the pillows, holding a hand out to him, telling herself if he could tolerate six months of celibacy, she'd indulge him as much as he wanted in the next week.

Skinner residence

Walt got up from the sofa to get something to drink from the kitchen. He'd been reading the same file for the last 15 minutes and knew he wasn't any more clear on it -- and it wasn't even one from Scully and Mulder. He grabbed a beer and brought it back to the other room.

He and Anthony had talked for quite a while after they'd gotten home about a lot of people -- Clare, Trevor, Elliot, the Iowa kids, Allison. Walt hadn't realized just how much Anthony had grown to depend on Allison too, thinking of her as his favorite aunt.

He rose at the knock at his door and both wondered who it could be at this hour, and why they hadn't used the doorbell. His expression was happy as he opened the door to Allison.

"Hi. Too late to talk?"

"No, come on in." She did and shrugged out of her coat as he closed the door behind her.

Allison wandered into the living room, tossing her coat onto the sofa and plopping onto it herself. She picked up his files and set them on the coffee table. Her hand brushed against the beer and she picked it up, pausing to sniff it before handing it to him. "I can never understand why people drink that stuff; it smells awful."

"I guess it's an acquired taste." He moved past her and sat on the sofa as she propped her feet on the table.

"One of the few I never acquired during my drinking days. That and rum unless it was in a daiquiri or pina colada. Then again, I generally stayed away from the sissy drinks and drank straight booze, maybe one mixer. But going over my drinking history isn't why I'm here."

"Here to ask for help moving?" His attempt at making a flip comment fell flat. She took his hand and applied a small amount of pressure.

"We're not moving for six months. Basil is going to England and the kids and I are going to wait to see if he'll be posted somewhere else, since there's an outside chance." Walt felt an unreasonable amount of relief course through his body. If nothing else, having six months would make the transition easier. "You'll still have to stomach two birthday parties at Discovery Zone."

He smiled as he gave her hand a brief squeeze and she leaned her head against the back of the sofa. "I thought you were going to call me, not drop by. Not that I'm complaining," Walt commented.

"I was, but I went to Teresa's to let her know about the changes coming up and I didn't feel like going home... so here I am."

He turned his head and arched an eyebrow. "You walked the three miles?"

She shook her head. "No. I borrowed Teresa's car. Although there was a time when I'd walk three miles without missing a beat... when I'd push Trev in the pram. At least moving back to England will likely prompt me to take up walking again. I'll definitely be a stay-at-home mom then, since trying to reciprocate my license to a foreign country is too much of a hassle."

"Who says you have to wait till you move to England to start taking walks? It's only, what, a mile to the elementary school from your house, right?"

Allison gazed at him before smacking him lightly on the shoulder. "Is that your way of telling me I should lose weight?"

He grinned as she laid her head back on the sofa. "No. But you said you wanted to lose weight. It seems like a perfect way to do it, and it'll help Trevor lose a few pounds, too. "

From anybody else, she would have been angered by the last sentence, but Walt had told her of the taunts he'd received as a chubby child and she knew he understood. "We used to walk, until Trev became friends with Shane and started getting rides with him." Walt nodded, having learned that Shane was confined to a wheelchair because of MS. "After Shane moved, we just kept it up," Allison continued. "The walk will do Trev good and I suppose I'll still have time to do it in the morning."

"Why only mornings?" Walt asked, mystified.

"Because I'm going to switch to days. I'm not happy about it, but it's the only option."

"I can't believe Teresa isn't willing to watch the kids for you."

"The woman is nearly 70, Walt. Despite the fact that she's in good shape, watching five kids for that many hours is too much." He smiled as she automatically counted Anthony in the number of kids. "She's going to watch them during the day for me through the end of the school year. Once I'm back on days, I'll have to work every other weekend, though. I haven't figured out what to do about that and the summer. Daycare will eat me alive."

An idea was hatching in the back of Walt's mind. The more he let it percolate, the more he thought it could work, even if it would make their leaving more difficult in six months. Getting Basil to agree to it would be tricky, though. "What if you could find someone you trusted to watch the kids and keep your present schedule. That would eliminate most of the problems, wouldn't it?"

She half-laughed and sat up. "Got Mary Poppins' home number, do you?"

"I was thinking of me." She stared at him with a patronizing look and didn't say anything. "What?"

"I'm waiting for the punch line."

He shook his head, "There is no punch line. I'm offering to watch the kids."

Allison stood up, shaking her head and rubbing her forehead. "Walt, I was hardly fishing for you to offer..."

He stood up and gently took her by the elbows. "I know that. Think of it as my finally finding a way to repay you for all that you've done for us."

She lowered her face and took a deep breath. "Walt, you don't know what you're offering. You're not conditioned for this -- after a hard day at work they'll drive you insane, whining and sniveling."

He raised her chin and looked sincerely into her eyes. "If I can handle a bunch of so-called professionals whining and sniveling in my office, I can do this."

She softly laughed and turned away as she took a few steps. "The kids are nothing if not professional whiners... It's very sweet of you to offer, but--"

He cut her off as he walked back to where she was standing. "But what?" She looked at him, exasperated. "Are you one of those people who readily help and support others but have trouble accepting it back?"

Allison started to say something then stopped. Walt placed his hands gently on her elbows, waiting for an answer. Her mind focused in on the jazz playing in the background and she wasn't really surprised to find that they were both slowly swaying to it now.

"For someone who 'can't' dance, you seem to be moving all right now." He abruptly stopped swaying and removed his hands, walking a few paces away. She shook her head. "You don't need to be embarrassed, Walt, I hardly thought you were making a pass or something. Though I'll admit that Basil would have been bloody pissed."

alt="Anthony Book Now there's the crux of the problem, Walt thought. "You think Basil will have a problem with me watching the kids?"

"That's exactly what I mean. You haven't thought this through. That's just one problem. Changing diapers will get old very fast, as will Ian spitting up on you. As will baths for four... What about Anthony? Are you going to wake him up when I get home just to drive him here and put him to bed? And after chasing around the little maniacs you'll be too tired to work on your files. And you don't have much hair left to pull out after their collective shenanigans."

He smiled at the last part. "Are you done? I'll admit that I haven't thought this through, but it will work if you just give it a try. Maybe Anthony could stay at your house the two school nights so his sleep wouldn't be disrupted."

She shook her head some more. "That's ridiculous. He'd see even less of you."

"What if Dad and I stayed overnight Wednesday and Thursday and we went home Friday and Saturday?"

Allison and Walt turned, surprised, and saw Anthony standing in the doorway.

"How long have you been listening?" Walt asked.

"A little while. Doesn't my scenario make sense, though? It won't matter if my sleep's disrupted on the weekends."

Allison looked at Walt who was shaking his head at Anthony's words... again. "Now I know where the phrase 'out of the mouths of babes' comes from. He does have a point, though," Walt admitted.

Anthony waited in the doorway. Allison was thinking the whole scenario was both possible and ridiculous... Except for the fact that Basil would very probably be consumed with jealousy if they stayed two nights a week for six months while he was out of the country. "Why would Basil be jealous if we stayed?" Anthony innocently asked.

Allison looked startled at the question, while Walt knew exactly how it'd come about. "All right, Anthony. It's time you went back to bed." Walt walked over to the doorway and escorted him to the top of the stairs after he and Allison exchanged good night waves. "No more eavesdropping, of any kind," Walt commanded in a whisper and kissed Anthony's forehead.

When Walt came back down, Allison was sitting on the sofa again, legs tucked under her. "Sorry about that. I hardly need to explain to you about kids and their imaginations."

He sat back down. Allison's expression clearly said she wasn't buying it. "You know as well as I do it isn't Anthony's imagination, Walt... though I didn't realize Basil had been that obvious around the kids." She sighed. "Basil has always been the jealous type; he just never does anything more than glare. He has a problem with his self-esteem, but it's gotten a lot better over the years. And for some reason it's taking him longer to get past it with you than it usually does... He will get past it, though."

"So are we going to try this or not?" Walt inquired, gently tugging on her foot.

She took a deep breath. "I don't know. If nothing else, I have to discuss it with Basil and see how mature he can manage to be."

They spent the next 15 minutes trying to iron out the potential problems.

"Have we covered all contingencies now?" Walt jokingly asked.

Allison laughed as she stood up and grabbed her coat. "I believe so." She looked over at the clock as it chimed the half-hour. "And it's still relatively early."

He arched an eyebrow. "Not many people consider 10:30p.m. early." He followed her to the door.

She turned as she placed her hand on the knob. "Well, Basil's a bit of a night owl. He does some of his best work at night." Walt figured she wasn't referring to paperwork, and knew he was right when he saw the faint blush rise in her cheeks.

Friday, July 4, 1997, 2:30p.m.

Allison drove Basil's sports car into the garage and noted that the van was gone. She peeled herself off the seat and smiled as she always did at the carseat on the passenger side. It looked so out of place in the coupe.

The air in the garage was bad, but the blast of hot, humid air that greeted her upon exiting it was overwhelming. She felt another pound almost literally melt off as she walked to the back porch and kitchen French doors. The wave of cold air from the house felt almost sinful.

She walked to the security panel and punched in the code to deactivate the alarm. Allison paused at the table and picked up a note.

Took the kids swimming, should be back
by four. Charles called en route, the plane was
delayed getting out of Heathrow, they'll be an
hour late. REST while we're gone, DO NOT clean.


She laughed reading the note a second time. "Well, I don't know if this counts as cleaning, Mr. Skinner, but with a downed air-conditioning unit at work, I'm absolutely taking a shower."

Allison sighed as the cool water sprayed over her body. She was surprised she didn't feel more tired -- getting off at 12:15a.m. and doubling back for the abbreviated holiday hours was the pits.

Part of her was looking forward to the possible end of working. Of course, a bigger part of her wasn't looking forward to maybe leaving the States, her family, Anthony and Walt. No final word had come down yet about where Basil would be working.

As she exited the shower, she recalled the 'cool argument' she'd had with Basil over Walt watching the kids. How she'd had to drag out a fact that both had agreed not to discuss regarding the 'trust factor.' Basil had pouted, but grudgingly conceded.

Poor Walt, she thought, remembering his rocky start with the kids. How he'd carefully not called her at the store once that first night -- but called Teresa every half hour instead.

In his first week: Ian had come down with a bug and his food had gone flying out both ends; Amelia had locked herself in the basement twice, with the key both times; Charlee had tried incessantly to cajole permission to adopt a stray cat; Anthony had lost both front teeth and suffered a fair amount of ridicule with his 'new lisp' and Trevor had unknowingly eaten birthday cake with nutmeg... and been miserable with the ensuing rash caused by his allergy.

Walt had withstood it all, even if she swore she saw more gray in his hair. In a few weeks he'd become a pro at handling them and she'd thought how unfair it was that he and Clare hadn't been together long enough to have more children.

Allison smiled as she dried off and wondered where he'd taken the kids. All the local pools would be overflowing with the current heat wave. And then there was the subject of locker rooms -- what would he do about the girls? She sighed as she sought something to wear and trusted whatever solution he could have come up with.

Over the last four and half months she'd lost those 15 pounds with scarcely a change in diet. Walking all those miles a week, weather allowing, had made a significant difference. Of course, losing the fat hadn't been as beneficial as the toning of her muscles. Purists would say she still needed to lose another 15 pounds, but they could stuff it.

Allison selected a black halter-style dress she hadn't worn since before Charlee was born. She smiled, very satisfied at the way it fit now. Basil might be disappointed with the reduction in her bosom but Allison wasn't, having watched it decrease by one cup size. And with that decrease, the degree of her backaches had abated, too.

She applied enough make-up to be visible over her pronounced tan and twisted her hair up, knowing it would just stick to her neck once she went out in the furnace again to pick Basil, Mary and Charles up at the airport.

She felt a flush of anticipation at having her husband home again, even if only for a few days. It was just over three months since they'd seen each other and she felt a dull ache, realizing that fantastically earth-moving or not, she missed their love-making all the same. He'd been generous over Easter and with more than twice the separation this time, she wondered... well, it didn't matter.

He'd sounded lonely on the phone for a while after they'd returned, but had been much more chipper in the last weeks with the trip home approaching. She glanced in the mirror one last time and saw the pinkish glow around the tan that said after nine years, she was still in love with her husband, problems or not.

It was the same glow she saw on Walt's face when he spoke of Clare, something he'd gotten more comfortable doing over the last months.

Despite the fact that he was talking about her, Allison had the definite impression that he was holding back. Maybe it was the hint of sadness that would momentarily cloud his eyes when he spoke about her, about how they'd met. Or the barely perceptible way he sloped his shoulders when a subject he didn't want to talk about came up. As federal agents, Allison figured they'd both been involved in less than savory cases at one time or another and maybe that was why he still seemed reticent.

She smiled again as she adjusted the straps on her sandals. Walt clearly held nothing back when he spoke of the plans they'd made for their future. Of all the kids and the big house, etc. No wonder he'd offered to watch the kids, she thought again; in a weird way, it fulfilled his dream. And despite what his colleagues might have thought, he was good at being a father. Indeed, Ian was tending to think of him as 'Dad,' something she was sure Basil would be bloody pissed about.

"Thank God Ian hasn't starting saying 'dada' yet," she said to no one and went downstairs.

About 45 Minutes Later

Allison saw the van go by the family room window and left her magazine on the sofa to trail after them. She carried her glass of lemonade with her and met them on the back porch. Four grinning faces greeted her, each with striking white teeth against the tan. Anthony had had the slowest start to his tan, being perpetually covered in SPF 45 to protect his incredibly fair skin.

With all the time they spent outside, the kids' hair had lightened considerably. Anthony had gone strawberry blond, Amelia looked like a true redhead, Trevor had gotten a bit auburn (as had Allison), Charlee's light brown hair was blonding out and Ian had become a towhead.

Ian came walking across the yard last, still with a bit of the 'Frankenstein' movement. He'd only been walking for two weeks and mumbled 'mama' as he saw her and smiled, showing off his own array of teeth. She walked down the steps and carried him up, receiving and giving a big hug in the process.

A seven-pounds lighter Trevor let loose a brief wolf whistle. "Wow, you look awesome, Mom."

Allison felt a tiny flush at the words. "Thank you, Trev. Where's Walt?"

"He's getting all the stuff out of the van," Anthony said as he goosed Amelia -- she screeched.

"Anthony. Don't do that," Allison said rolling her eyes as Amelia began chasing him around the porch, cornering and kissing him. Allison laughed as he started yelling 'cooties, cooties.'"All right, wet stuff by the laundry chute, please, and help yourselves to some lemonade." She put her wriggling son down and Charlee took his hand to lead him into the house.

Allison snuck up on Walt with a devious glint in her eyes as he leaned into the van -- she goosed him.

"Uhhh," he replied, jumping at the sensation. He turned to her innocent expression and stole the glass from her. "Do I want to know what prompted that?"

"Anthony just did it to Amelia and I figure he learned it somewhere."

Walt drained the glass and arched an eyebrow. "Well, it wasn't from me." He gazed at her admiringly. "Wow, that dress looks great on you. New?"

She shook her head and bent to pick up some of the toys he was unloading to mask her blush. Basil generally assumed that she knew he thought she always looked great and seldom issued compliments -- plus, hearing the words from an adult male vs. a child tended to carry more weight.

"One I haven't been able to squeeze into for a while," she eventually replied. "Where the hell did you go that you needed all this stuff?"

He grinned devilishly. "The pool in the Hoover Building. It was, uh, pretty deserted, but it also didn't have anything appropriate for kids."

Allison rolled her eyes. "I bet security was tremendously amused to see you in on a holiday with five kids."

"You could say that," he conceded. He closed the van's back door as she started to return to the house. "Allison, wait a minute." She turned to him expectantly and immediately frowned at the awkward expression on his face. "Um, Basil didn't make the flight." She loudly exhaled and lowered her head at the same time. "Charles said some last-minute business came up and Basil would fly out tomorrow."

Allison unconsciously clenched her jaw. "Wonderful. Why didn't he bother to call himself?" Walt started to answer and she waved a hand at him. "Don't bother, it was a rhetorical question... I certainly hope he manages to get his butt here by Sunday."

She knew she sounded too annoyed at this turn of events, but she and Basil had argued about putting work aside for the kids numerous times throughout the marriage, and she was peeved that he wasn't doing it now. She just hoped he really was working and not...

"I'm sure he will," Walt lied as they walked back to the house. He couldn't bring himself to tell her that Charles had said that Basil was drinking again.

Allison tried to put aside the growing, nagging suspicion in her mind, but she couldn't. Basil certainly could be working; July 4 would hardly be a holiday in England. She picked up the towels and bathing suits from the floor and stuffed them down the large chute in the back hall. The children had been lectured/threatened from here to Sunday about never trying to go down it... and so far, none had.

Ian wandered past her, bottle in one hand, cookie in the other. A short while later he started crying as his progress was impeded by the gate across the hall, blocking his access to the stairs. Allison automatically trailed after him as the rest of the kids came running on their way to the playroom. She absently hiked the skirt up and climbed over the gate before reaching over and picking Ian up -- he suddenly smelled ripe.

Walt followed the kids and easily picked up one after the other to transfer them to the other side. He reached out and touched Allison's arm, concerned at the blank look in her eyes. "You all right?" he murmured, trying to keep his voice low so the kids wouldn't hear.

"Mmm? Uh, yeah. I guess I'm just more tired than I thought," she lied.

Walt climbed over the gate and followed her up the stairs. He didn't believe her explanation, but didn't want to push either. "I'll change Ian. Why don't you go lay down for a while."

She flashed a small smile as she put Ian down on the other side of the second floor gate and the kids came flying out of the guest room, having circumvented the obstruction by going through the other rooms. "Thanks."

Walt half-watched her as she closed the door behind her. He climbed over the gate and resolved to give her some time before he tried to find out what was really bothering her. He chased Ian down as he tried to go into the guest room and solidly closed the door... thankfully, turning doorknobs wasn't in Ian's repertoire yet.

Allison laid on the bed, thinking. A half-dozen scenarios played out in her head for why Basil had really missed the flight and she was dismayed at the lack of credence she was giving the charitable ones. Why did she suddenly not trust him? She reached for the phone, knowing it was because of his past track record and the slope of Walt's shoulders when he'd relayed the information. Walt was holding something back, and the only reason to do so was if it wasn't favorable news.

She waited for the connection to go through and clenched and unclenched her fist as the phone rang. She was about to hang up when it was answered.

"Hello?" a strange female voice slurred.

With a feeling of dread, Allison responded. "I'm sorry, I was trying to reach someone else. I must have dialed the wrong number." She started to hang up when she heard Basil's voice in the background.

"Felicia! I told you not to anshwer that."

"I'm shorry, B, I thought it might be..."

Allison didn't wait to hear anymore and disconnected. She felt her stomach start churning. "That bloody son of a bitch," she muttered under her breath, feeling numb.

All sorts of images crowded her mind, making her dizzy. She rubbed her forehead before dragging her hand down to cover her mouth. Tears started to well in her eyes as anger began forming also. She grabbed a throw pillow from the bed and did just that with it. "Again... he's done it to me again, that horny little bastard." She replayed the words she'd heard, noting the slurring present in both their speech. Noting how 'Felicia' had called him 'B,' not Basil.

She threw herself back on the bed and beat her fists into it. When the phone rang, she knew it would be him and bolted back upright, grabbing the cordless. "I don't have anything to say to you, you arrogant, selfish bastard!"

"Ally, pleashe, let me explain. It ishn't what you're thinking. Felicia was helping me with a report sho I could catch an earlier plane."

"Save your breath. Lying to me when you're drunk only worked when I was drunk. How could you do this to me again? How!?"

"I'm shorry, Ally. I'm sho shorry. I'm weak -- it was only onshe, I shwear. SShe doeshn't mean anything to me. I love you, Ally, pleashe, give me another chanshe."

"God! You just don't learn. Stop lying and digging yourself in deeper! Who is she? Some little tart you picked up while you were drinking?"

"No, no."

Allison heard 'Felicia's' muffled voice again in the background. "It's a plus shign, B. What am I going to tell Cyril? He had a vashestekatomy, uh, a vashes-- oh, he got fixed."

"Shut up, you bloody cow!" Allison's blood ran cold. Oh, God, she's pregnant. And married, she thought. He had to have been seeing her for weeks. "Ally? Ally?" She held the phone away from her as the rest of the implications sunk in.

Weeks... that was why he'd sounded happier; he was having an affair. They obviously hadn't taken precautions at least once. Oh, God! she thought. "When!? When did you start sleeping with her?"

"What? I don't undershtand."

" Before or after Easter?"

"Oh. After." Allison breathed a sigh of relief -- she was fairly certain he wasn't lying, but she'd still get tested, just the same. And insist on them getting tested.

Felicia was whining in the background again about what would happen to her. How her husband would kick her out and she'd have nowhere to go when he found out about the baby. Her voice was irritatingly shrill. "I'll pay for the blasted abortion, jusht leave me alone, you bloody shrew."

That was the last straw for Allison. He'd cheated on her, started drinking again, gotten a married woman pregnant and now wasn't man enough to live up to his obligation. "Don't bother coming back to the house, Basil. The locks will be changed. I don't want to see your sorry butt anywhere near here unless it's to sign the final divorce papers."

He started to protest, but she hung up on him. A wave of anger and pain washed over her and she threw the phone against the wall with trembling fingers. Nine years, she thought, nine years down the toilet in the blink of an eye.

She threw herself back on the bed and let the tears pour out.

Walt thought he had heard Allison's raised voice, but the kids were watching some show on television in the playroom and he wasn't sure. He was certain something was wrong when he heard an object hit the wall. He dropped the rest of his things into the suitcase and hurriedly made his way to her door. A respect for privacy forced him to knock before he went in.

Walt cautiously entered, not immediately seeing her and closed the door behind him. He found her on the floor on the opposite side of the bed, legs straight out in front of her as she leaned forward, hands covering her face, sobbing quietly.

He sat down beside her before putting his arm around her listless body and gently stroking her arm as she laid her head on his shoulder. Walt planned to let her cry it out before he asked any questions, but the ringing phone changed that. He gently leaned her against the bed and retrieved it.

"Wright residence."

"Lemme shpeak to Ally."

Walt felt his stomach sink as he realized it was Basil and that he was indeed drunk.

Before he had a chance to respond, Felicia's voice was audible in the background moaning that he couldn't make her kill their baby. Walt felt an unreasonable anger rise within him and thought he'd easily throttle Basil if he were in front of him now.

"Even if she did want to speak to you, I wouldn't let her," he seethed in reply. "Don't call back until you're at least sober, you bastard." Walt disconnected the phone and reopened the line so Basil couldn't get through again.

He took a deep breath and removed the chilling, harsh tone from his voice as he turned back to Allison. She'd moved back onto the bed, turned slightly in his direction, and was trying to dry her eyes. Walt couldn't remember ever seeing her look the way she did right now -- vulnerable, hurt, betrayed and thoroughly unhappy. It stirred something primeval in him, a need to protect her, take care of her, provide for her.

He gathered her in his arms, cradling her head against his chest, stroking her smooth back before softly kissing her hair. "Is there anything I can do?"

She leaned away from him and sniffled. "Turn back time... Castrate Basil."

He didn't try to stop the small smile spreading across his lips. "I was thinking more along the lines of something within my power." Although the latter suggestion had a certain degree of charm, he thought.

"Unzip me," she whispered and turned her back to him. He wasn't sure what to make of her request as his hand hovered over the zipper. "Basil loved this dress, there's no need to wear it now." Walt slowly lowered the zipper and averted his eyes as he discovered she wasn't wearing any undergarments.

Allison stood up and unfastened the halter section, barely keeping the fabric in place. She stepped out of the dress entirely a few feet from the walk-in closet without a second thought as Walt continued to keep his eyes elsewhere.

How could Basil have done this to her, he thought. How dense and moronic could the man be to ruin a good marriage, to hurt Allison so deeply, to jeopardize his relationship with his children. Allison had a huge capacity for forgiveness, for love, but he doubted her heart was big enough for this.

She emerged a few seconds later, buttoning up a loose-fitting dress before sitting on the edge of the bed again.

She sat quietly, trying to assemble her thoughts before she spoke. "This isn't the first affair he's had." Allison took a deep breath as Walt inadvertently hissed. "I had toxemia when I was carrying Charlee -- we stopped having sex at my sixth month. He had 'one too many' and ended up in bed with a former schoolmate."

Allison plucked at a piece of fuzz on the bedspread. "He promised me on his knees that he'd used a condom and that it would never happen again... I forgave him, but I wouldn't let him near me until both their blood tests came back negative." She dropped her head and took another deep breath.

alt="Anthony Book Oh, God, Walt thought, what if he gave her AIDS?

"Basil said he didn't start in with 'Felicia' till after we came back, but my mind won't rest till we're all tested." She covered her face with her hands. "What am I gonna do? I can't tell the kids, they're too young to understand. And his parents?"

Walt pulled her back to him as she started crying again. "I'll call Teresa and ask her to stay with you while I collect Mary and Charles," he soothed.

She pulled away from him again. "No. It's my problem. I'll collect them; I'd rather go to the airport than try to put on a happy face for the kids right now."

He took her hand and softly stroked it. "It's not solely your problem, Allison. I'll be here for you, whatever you need, for as long as you need it. That's what friends are for." She smiled and he brushed his fingers across her cheek, removing a few tears. He leaned forward and kissed her forehead before getting up and walking to the door.

"Walt?" He turned back to her. "Thanks for... thanks."

He smiled and cocked an eyebrow. "One more thing. It would probably be wise to put on some underwear."

Allison looked confused. "What?" Walt glanced at the halter dress in response and she absently looked toward it before feeling a blush spread across her cheeks. "Oh, uh, right."

Allison watched the people walking down the jetway and knew the smile on her face looked plastic. Walt sighed as he gazed at her, feeling a portion of her pain. He remembered the look of first disbelief, then animosity on Teresa's face when he'd briefed her before they'd left.

If Basil had been there, Teresa would have murdered him with her expression alone. Allison was the closest thing to a daughter she had and seeing her so completely betrayed was incredibly difficult for her. Keeping her tongue, should she come in contact with Basil, would be impossible -- and Walt felt the same, though he still thought his reaction would be a physical one.

The next 20 minutes were excruciating for all involved as Mary and Charles arrived and retrieved their luggage. Their expressions clearly showed they knew something was majorly wrong, but a glance at Walt told them not to ask just yet.

Allison made it as far as the van before telling them in a voice bereft of emotion what she'd discovered. Mary took a deep breath in shock while Charles shook his head repeatedly, muttering under his breath.

Walt was afraid they'd support Basil in some fashion; he was, after all, their son. He stifled his sigh of relief as Charles aired his opinion. "That bloody stupid sod! How could he be such a son of a bitch? He has a beautiful, loving wife, four wonderful kids and he chucks it all to satisfy his hormones."

"Charles," Mary said as she placed a hand on his arm from the backseat. "You know Basil has been under so much stress with the new job and how lonely he's been."

Charles turned to her with wide eyes. "Don't even start to defend him, Mary. The bloody oaf doesn't deserve it." He simmered a few seconds before turning his attention to Allison as she stared unseeing out one of the backseat windows. "Did you say this 'Felicia' mentioned her husband's name was Cyril?" She nodded. "Shit! That's got to be Cyril Gibson, Basil's immediate supervisor. He married some little 'decoration' last year named Felicia. My God, could Basil be any more stupid?"

Mary leaned back in her seat and rubbed her head. "I just don't understand what he could have been thinking." Walt raised an eyebrow unconsciously as he looked back at Allison and Mary saw it. "I know, he wasn't thinking... We raised him better than this. What can we do to help you, Ally, dear?" she said while taking her hand and gently squeezing.

Allison took a deep breath. "I don't know. Ian won't remember his first birthday, but I don't want Trev, Charlee and Amelia to know about this right away. At least," she looked out the window again, "at least till I'm sure we can't reconcile."

With great effort Walt kept his expression neutral. If that was what Allison wanted to do, he'd support her decision, but he was sure it wouldn't work. Basil had destroyed her trust; trust and love were the foundation for a solid marriage. He shook his head, recalling how his love had enabled him to blindly trust Clare and realized he'd better keep his mouth shut.

"I can't believe I'm saying this about my own child," Charles began, "but don't try to save the marriage, Ally. Basil missed the flight because he was passed out drunk when we stopped to pick him up. He positively reeked of ale. You and the kids will be better off without him."

Sunday, July 13, 1997, 8:10p.m.

Allison stood in front of the full-length mirror and thought for the 10th time that this evening was a mistake. Teresa peeked around the partially open door and did her best wolf whistle imitation. Allison vaguely smiled as she went back to her dresser to find a pair of earrings.

"Walt was right, that dress is, uh, very becoming." The dress in question was a hideously expensive frosted teal floor-length gown with a mid-thigh slit. It was sleeveless with the back dipping below her shoulder blades -- it also had a dropped cowl neckline.

Allison fastened some pearl earrings and reached for a pearl choker to go with it. "This dress screams 'date,' not one friend accompanying another to an official function. And did I tell you how much he spent on it?"

Teresa sighed as she carefully pulled a few tendrils down from Allison's swept-up hair. "Yes, you did, but he can afford it with his salary. Besides, you don't own anything fancy enough for this reception and he was hardly going to let you spend your own money when you're doing him a favor."

Allison dabbed a discreet amount of perfume behind her ears, in the hollow of her throat and on both wrists before moving back to the bed and slipping on her satiny ecru pumps. "We both know the only reason Walt invited me to this thing was to take my mind off Basil."

Teresa picked up the matching wrap and placed it around Allison's shoulders. "Apparently it's not working. I'm just glad the little weasel hasn't turned up on your doorstep."

They left the room and started down the stairs. As Allison descended and the kids gathered at the base, she couldn't shake the feeling of being a movie star greeting her fans. The girls beamed at her, but Trevor's eyes were troubled.

For the moment, the girls believed that Basil was simply tied up with the new job. They'd been confused about why Daddy had missed the birthday party, but had accepted the explanation. Trevor had not; he knew a lot more was going on by the way Allison looked blankly into space so much. The way the adults would stop talking whenever he'd walk into a room. He suspected his father wasn't coming back and felt hurt that his mother would lie to him.

Allison smiled at her children -- so young, so innocent, still so happy and trusting. Don't be in a hurry to grow up, she thought. She gazed into Trevor's eyes and felt that pang again. He had his father's blue-gray eyes and her hair, and right now had a betrayed expression on his face -- she got no 'you look awesome, Mom' from him now.

As she placed her hand in his hair and slid it behind his ear, his expression changed to confusion. This was a rotten time to explain things to him, but he obviously needed to talk.

Teresa came from behind her and grabbed Ian before he and his sticky fingers reached Allison. She carried him back to the kitchen for a clean-up and the girls trailed after her, hoping for a cookie. Trevor looked up at Allison with those soulful eyes and she felt her heart melting. She took his hand and led him into the drawing room, closing the pocket doors behind her. They both sat on one sofa and she took his hand again.

"Sweetie, I haven't been honest with you about your father, and I'm sorry." Giving advice about being honest with your children is certainly easier than practicing it, she thought.

"Is Dad dead?" he half-sobbed.

Her eyes lit up in compassion and at her own stupidity for not letting Trevor speak to Basil when he'd called. She squeezed his hand gently. "No, Trev, your father isn't dead."

He furiously tried to scrub off the tears staining his cheeks. "Then why do you look so sad whenever somebody talks about him?"

She took a deep breath. Highly intelligent or not, her eight-year-old son didn't need to know all the particulars. "Dad was lonely without us and he started drinking again."

Trevor looked away; he was old enough to remember the closed-door shouting matches they'd had when Basil had been drinking. "But he stopped before, can't he stop again? Especially if he knows how upset it makes you, Mom?"

She smiled sadly and stroked his cheek. "It isn't that simple, Trev. Dad... Dad met a lady that helped him feel less lonely and--"

"Like Uncle Walt?" he interrupted.

Allison's eyes got wide as she thought, not even close. "No, honey, not like Uncle Walt. Uncle Walt and I are very good friends. Dad and that lady became more than friends, and they're... they're going to have a baby together."

He cocked his head to one side. "How'd that happen?"

alt="Anthony Book Oh, shit, she thought, I'm not prepared to go into that discussion right now. "He, uh, did something with her that he should only have done with me."

"You mean sex?" he innocently asked.

She sharply inhaled and turned her attention to the front window as Walt and Anthony exited their car. "What do you know about sex, Trev?"

"What I've seen on TV... and what I heard some of the older kids down the block saying."

Allison took another deep breath as she heard the front door opening. "Would you like me to explain it to you now?" He gulped and shyly nodded. "Okay, sweetheart. Just let me talk to Walt a minute first." She got up and hurriedly walked over to the doors before popping her head through. "Hi, Anthony. Gramma has some cookies in the kitchen, why don't you go help yourself." He smiled and ran down the hall -- kids and cookies, she distractedly thought.

"What's up?" Walt asked, concerned by the overwhelmed expression on her face.

"You might need to go to the reception without me for a while. Trev and I just got into a complicated discussion and I won't leave till we're through."

"Take as much time as you need, I'll wait. Besides, the less time I have to spend at this stupid function, the better." He smiled warmly and wandered down the hall.

15 awkward minutes later, Allison felt relieved that the discussion was over and wondered how fast Trevor would transmit his newfound knowledge to Anthony. Trevor's expression resembled shell-shock as he tried to absorb everything she'd said and make some sense of it. "But if you're only supposed to do that with someone you love, why did Dad do it with that lady?"

Allison turned away from him momentarily and pursed her lips. "Drinking alcohol decreases your judgment. You don't always stop to consider the consequences of your actions. And sometimes you do things that aren't right."

He looked thoughtful a few seconds. "So it isn't Dad's fault?"

alt="Anthony Book Well, I wouldn't go that far, she thought. "Being drunk is no excuse for doing something that you know to be wrong, because you're still responsible for your actions."

He sidled closer as she placed her arm around him; he laid his head against her chest. "Are you getting divorced? Does Dad still love us? Will we see him?"

Allison took a deep breath. "Yes to all your questions, honey... When your father slept with that other lady, he broke a sacred trust between us that can't be rebuilt." Well, it could, she thought, if... "But he will always love you all, don't ever doubt that. And we'll work out an arrangement for you to see him. In the meantime, you can talk to him whenever you want on the phone. Okay, honey? Do you have any other questions?"

He moved back and wiped his eyes. "We can talk some more later. You have to go to that reception with Uncle Walt."

She took his chin gently in her hand. "I'm not going anywhere till we're finished, Trev. You're far more important to me than some silly reception."

A small smile spread across his lips. "I love you, Mom."

She reached across for him and enveloped him in her protective warmth. "I love you, too, honey." She pulled back and ruffled his hair. "Trev, please don't say anything to Charlee and Amelia. Your father is going to fly in later this week so we can talk to an attorney. He and I will tell your sisters what's happening then."

They stood up and started walking back to the door. "Mom? Do you still love Dad?"

She stopped and trailed her fingers lightly along his jaw, wishing she didn't feel the way she did. "Yes, Trev, I do." She paused and stared vacantly at the piano. "But sometimes that isn't enough."

Walt escorted Allison through the over-sized, elaborate doors, feeling a small surge of adrenaline as people turned and gazed admiringly at them. He couldn't remember attending one of these damned soirees with anyone he cared deeply about. He and Clare hadn't been together long enough, but she probably would have felt right at home, also gathering stares.

After Allison had explained the nature of her discussion with Trevor, he'd been surprised she was still willing to accompany him. His plan to take her mind off Basil wasn't working in the least. He saw Ned McIntire with a pretty young thing, literally, and diplomatically smiled as they approached.

"Walt," he said warmly, extending his hand, "good to see you made it. I don't believe you've met my youngest, Lauren."

Walt politely shook both their hands and murmured hellos before introducing Allison to them, not indicating their relationship as McIntire was already aware of it.

Even in her distracted state, Allison was aware of Lauren's attraction to Walt and found it, well, cute. Despite the dress, make-up and hair, Lauren looked about 18 or 19 and wasn't making her signals very subtle.

Allison watched Lauren's youthful exuberance dim when she glanced at their hands and made the assumption that Lauren thought she and Walt were married to each other. Allison recognized the brief stare her bosom received from Lauren -- the one that basically implied mother nature had been helped by silicone. Allison's eyes twinkled when Lauren pouted as her father and Walt excused themselves to forage for beverages.

"That's a beautiful dress, Lauren, and it looks terrific on you." It was a tunic style in a shimmering champagne-beige and set off her blonde hair. Allison looked with amusement at Lauren's painfully thin frame and mentally shook her head -- another casualty of society. She herself was several pounds lighter due to eating next to nothing the past week... despite daily reprimands from Walt, Teresa and the kids.

"Thanks. Dad bought it for me at a little shop in Georgetown."

Before either could say anything else, Allison's pager went off. She excused herself and retrieved it from her evening bag. She smiled at Trevor's belated comment -- 'You really look awesome tonight, Mom.'

"Problem?" Lauren politely asked.

"No, just my eldest sending me a compliment."

"So Mr. Wright doesn't mind your bringing his wife to this reception?" McIntire asked as they waited for the drinks.

alt="Anthony Book At this point his opinion is very low on my list of concerns, Walt thought. "Basil is still in England," he lowered his voice as he looked back to Allison, "and they're about to start divorce proceedings."

McIntire murmured sympathetic comments as Walt briefly told him why. "Damned fool," he replied as they started back through the throng.

"So how long have you and Mr. Skinner been married?" Lauren was just asking as her father and Walt returned.

Walt raised his eyebrows as he handed Allison her tonic water. "Excuse me?"

"They're not married to each other, Lauren," McIntire interjected. "Their sons are in the same class. In fact, you should talk to Mrs. Wright about the future of pharmacy." He turned his attention back to Allison. "Lauren's about to start her second year at Campbell."

"That's a very good school. I looked into going there myself, but they didn't offer a PharmD in the mid to late 1970s."

Any comment Lauren was about to make was interrupted when a young man stole up behind her and pressed his cold drink to her bare arm -- she jumped. "Roger!"

McIntire rolled his eyes. "Walt, Mrs. Wright, this is my son Roger," he said. Walt was amused to note that Roger appeared to take an immediate liking to Allison's cleavage and asked her -- or at least her cleavage -- to dance. "Roger tends to get a bit presumptuous," his father stated apologetically.

Allison smiled in amusement. It had been a long time since she'd garnered the attention of a strapping young lad. "I'd love to dance, Roger, thank you."

Lauren spoke up instantly then and asked Walt to dance. He looked questioningly toward McIntire before offering his arm to her and leading her to the dance floor.

Ned McIntire watched in amusement as his hormone-driven children went off in seventh heaven. He sat at a nearby table, where he was shortly joined by a very pregnant young woman and a tall gentleman attired in the dress of a foreign diplomat.

Allison shot Walt another 'are we having fun yet' look as Roger had trouble keeping his eyes on her face. The draping of the cowl neckline kept her bosom mostly covered, but Roger seemed to be hoping for a peek. She could smell the faint aroma of tequila on his breath and endeavored to engage him in conversation. "Are you in school or working, Roger?"

He reluctantly raised his eyes and smiled. "Just about to start my second year of law school at Georgetown." He looked deeply into her eyes and pulled her closer. "You have the most incredible eyes."

The aquamarine color of her eyes was intensified by the frosted teal gown, she knew. "Thank you." She felt his hand starting to caress her back and wondered why she always seemed to attract the guys who drank.

"So how old is your son, Mr. Skinner?" Lauren sweetly asked.

He dragged his eyes back to her and smiled. "Anthony turned seven in March."

"That's a fun age. Your, uh, wife couldn't be here tonight?"

He managed to keep the frown off his face. "She died last year."

Lauren promptly exuded sympathy. "Oh, I'm sorry... I was just a few years older than Anthony when my mom died."

Allison gritted her teeth as Roger's hands began roving more. Any another guy and she would have told him where to get off, but this was the FBI director's son, and she didn't want to make a scene that could have repercussions for Walt. She was greatly relieved when McIntire came up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder.

"I'm sure Mrs. Wright doesn't appreciate being mauled, Roger. Go sit and stick to soda water the rest of the night." Roger pouted, but complied. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Wright, he's usually better behaved than that. It's no excuse, but he just broke up with his girlfriend and has been hitting the bar ever since we arrived."

She smiled with a warm brilliance. "No harm done. And call me Allison."

He smiled back at her. "That's very gracious of you, Allison.

He looked back at the table, where the young woman shifted uncomfortably in her chair. "Any advice for a very soon to be first-time mother? Renee's been miserable the last few weeks. Her doctor says she has something called pre-eclampsia."

Allison shook her head in sympathy. "I had that with Charlee, my eldest daughter, although they still called it toxemia then. Tell her to rest as much as she can, keep her feet propped up, watch her salt intake and drink plenty of water."

About an Hour and a Half Later

Allison ducked into the ladies room in an attempt to lose her latest dance partner, another human octopus. She'd glanced at Walt just before leaving the floor and felt little sympathy as the boisterous, and clearly well on her way to being drunk, wife of another assistant director clung to him. She nearly bumped into Dana Scully as she went in.

"Oh! I'm sorry. Oh, hello, Dana."

Scully smiled in recognition. "Allison. I'm surprised you remember me without the knee pads."

Allison laughed and removed a compact from her bag. "I will say you look a little different without the jeans."

Scully was wearing a muted royal blue gown with a sweetheart neckline and short, capped sleeves. The color brought out the blue in her eyes and her hair was swept up like Allison's. "I could say the same thing about you."

"Yes, well, this damned dress is getting me far more attention than I need. Too many leering and multi-handed dance partners."

Scully smiled. "I know the feeling. Mulder is a reasonable dancer, but his choice of small talk leaves something to be desired."

Allison finished powdering her nose and turned back to Scully. "How's your friend Ellen doing with the new baby?"

"Just fine. Hannah's growing like the proverbial weed."

The two had met in March, when Scully had taken her godson to Discovery Zone the same day as Anthony's birthday party.

"I suppose I should go rescue Walt," Allison murmured. "I doubt he wants to spend the rest of the night holding up Mrs. Balthazar while she hiccups in his ear."

"Yeah, back to Mulder and his inane chatter for me," Scully sighed as they both left.

Allison returned to the dance-floor area and looked around for Walt. She declined an invitation as she spied him almost literally pouring Mrs. Balthazar into a chair. AD Balthazar had a pained expression on his face as he approached the table. He helped his wife up and thanked Walt for keeping an eye on her. "Come on, Shirley, time to go home."

Allison stole up behind Walt a few seconds later and he unconsciously put his arm around her as she placed a hand on his shoulder. "How much did she have?" she whispered.

"One glass of champagne. She's allergic to it."

Allison rolled her eyes. "Then why drink it?"

"Apparently she loves the taste."

"Well, would you be interested in dancing with or talking to someone who isn't inebriated or full of lustful thoughts?"

He half-smiled at the nearly mischievous expression on her face and realized it was the first time in a week that she sounded like herself. "I suppose I could be convinced," he agreed and led her back to the dance floor.

They settled into a comfortable rhythm immediately and gazed around the room at the other people. Allison caught sight of Scully and flashed a smile. Scully rolled her eyes right before her partner turned her away. "I get the impression that Dana is dancing with Agent Mulder?"

Walt craned his neck around and caught sight of them. "Yes, that's Mulder."

Allison swiveled her head back to give him an expectant look. "You aren't going to introduce me? I thought you'd been disappointed at missing them during the tour of the Hoover building."

Walt looked over at them again and shook his head. "From the expression on Scully's face, I'd say Mulder is going on about one of his pet theories. I'm finally starting to relax, don't spoil it." She smiled up at him as he turned her around the floor in their waltz. "I can't believe this is the first dance we've had tonight."

"Well if you didn't look so handsome in your tux, you wouldn't have drawn so much attention from all the ladies." He turned her toward a less-crowded section of the floor and flashed an almost-embarrassed smile. "And if you'd bought me a less revealing dress, I wouldn't have had all those guys hanging around me."

The corners of his eyes crinkled with a more relaxed smile. "Now's a hell of a time to mention you don't like the dress."

She lightly smacked his shoulder. "You know as well as I do that once I saw the price tags, all rational thought flew from my mind. You and the sales clerk picked this dress, and I was just along for the ride... Maybe if I wear this thing once a year till I die, I'll get some wear out of it."

He rolled his eyes and turned her again. "Now you sound like Clare."

Allison smiled as he got that vacant look again. "Did the two of you attend any of these functions together?"

Walt looked back into her eyes. "No. We weren't together long enough. And even though FBI protocol doesn't forbid colleagues from dating, most couples avoid advertising the relationship until marriage pops up. Scully and Mulder can get away with showing up at these things together because they're partners."

She glanced around for them. "You make it sound like something's going on between them."

He followed her gaze and shook his head again. "I doubt it, at least I hope not. It's hard to tell what's going through their minds."

"Well, it's certainly possible for a man and a woman to have a caring, platonic relationship... we're proof of that." The song came to an end and they stopped. Allison glanced at the tables of reception food and wrinkled her nose. "I could really go for a good old-fashioned Philly cheesesteak right about now."

Walt arched an eyebrow. "With all the gourmet food here, you want what?"

"I want a hoagie roll with steaming chopped beef, smothered in melted mozzarella and covered in onions and peppers."

"Thanks. Now you've got me hungry. We're overdressed for any establishment that would sell any."

She flashed an impish smile at him. "Oh, I can think of one place where attire won't matter."

Allison wandered into her kitchen in a button-down nightshirt, feeling infinitely more comfortable. She opened the freezer and removed the box of thin-sliced steak; in the absence of hoagie rolls, she grabbed a half-loaf of Italian bread. After removing the shredded mozzarella, a green pepper and an onion from the fridge, Allison turned on the radio.

While the bread was thawing in the microwave, she turned on the griddle and started cutting up the vegetables. An acutely appropriate song came on the radio... the lyrics and fumes from the onion combined to make her wallow in her emotions. The song was 'Shattered Dreams' by Johnny Hates Jazz.

By the time Walt returned from walking Teresa home, Allison was leaning against the island, tears freely falling, peppers burning. Without a word, he tossed his tux jacket over a chair and enveloped her. He closed his eyes and held her tighter as the sobs sent tremors vibrating through her body.

After a few moments he felt her breathing evening out. "It'll be all right, Allison," he murmured into her hair, then softly kissed it a few times before kissing her forehead.

She pulled away from him and looked deeply into his eyes. "When?"

Walt held her face tenderly in his hands and slowly leaned forward, kissing her forehead again. And then her closed eyes, her cheeks, her chin and finally her lips. He pulled away long enough for the desire in both their eyes to be visible before kissing her again with a passion, plunging his tongue into her mouth. She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him back with her own fervor. His lips broke from hers and moved quickly to her throat. As she dropped her head back, he sought her cleavage before pulling the shirt off entirely.

He grabbed her by the waist and easily hoisted her onto the island counter. With one mighty pull, her panties were torn off. The glow from her eyes said it all. Walt moved back to her and lowered his mouth to one swollen breast, tenaciously suckling while she held his head there.

When at length he moved back to drop his trousers and briefs, milk was dribbling down from Allison's nipple. He positioned her closer to the edge and held his utterly enormous erection just outside her entrance before thrusting it in. Allison bit her lip hard at the force of his penetration and size. Walt gripped her hips harshly and pounded away in her, lasting only about 30 seconds before both let loose a howl as they came together.

Basil moved away from his vantage point at the window in disgust. He muttered under his breath and considering the degree of his drunken state, managed to leave the driveway remarkably quietly.


Walt held her face tenderly in his hands and slowly leaned forward, kissing her forehead again. "In time, the pain will go away in time. And hopefully the smell of burning peppers will leave faster."

She turned to the stove, wiping her eyes and laughed. "Good thing I've got another pepper. Although, right now, my appetite seems to have disappeared again."

"No, you don't. You're going to eat something if I have to feed it to you bite by bite."

She smiled back at the grin on his face and proceeded to scrape the burned vegetable from the griddle as he retrieved the other pepper from the fridge. While she fried up the onions, he tucked his bowtie into his jacket and unfastened another button on the pleated shirt. "Why don't you just go upstairs and change?" she suggested. "You don't need grease all over that tux, the rental agency would kill you."

He retrieved the aforementioned items and winked at her before leaving the kitchen. "With as many of these damn functions as I have to attend, it made more sense to buy one. But you're right, I don't need to provide an unremovable stain for the dry cleaner."

Allison chopped up the new pepper and tossed it on the griddle. A movement caught her attention outside the window and she slowly walked to it, shrugging as she didn't see anything. Just to be on the safe side, though, she wandered over to the security panel and activated the alarm.

Basil sat in his car and grabbed the fifth of gin again, taking a healthy swig before putting it back, noting that it was nearly empty. She had her nerve, he thought, calling the kettle black, letting Skinner fuck her in the kitchen, something she'd never let him do -- 'The kids could walk in,' she'd said. And letting her milk come back in just for Skinner. "The shlut!" he said.

His affair had been accidental, a result of his tremendous loneliness, of discovering that he wasn't nearly as good at management as he was at sales, at getting tired of taking care of himself. But not her, he thought, she'd planned her affair with Skinner, the two of them had planned it. Planned to get rid of him. They were probably laughing their heads off at his expense as they fucked each other's brains out. He shuddered at his own inadequacy, remembering the size of Skinner. "Hell, at least I last longer," he grumbled.

He leaned back and brooded some more. He'd started drinking as a way to ease his loneliness and unhappiness... and Felicia had been a willing diversion. He hadn't meant it to be more than a one-night stand, then two, etc.

Basil beat the dashboard with his fists, thinking how angry he was at Allison for cuckolding him, at Felicia for her unceasing nitpicking when she was sober, at his employers for letting him know in no uncertain terms that his performance was below what they expected. That had been the day before he was supposed to fly home for Ian's birthday and he'd blitzkrieged that night away, scarcely stopping to breathe while he chugged anything that was available. He'd even sent Felicia out for ale.

He couldn't believe after the argument she'd had with Gibson that he'd taken her back, not insisted that she get rid of the baby. Of course, knowing Gibson, he probably thought having her keep the baby would provide a constant reminder of her unfaithfulness. "God, he was an arrogant shon of a bitch," he slurred out loud. Not nearly as arrogant as Skinner, though, he thought as he took the last swig. That s.o.b. took advantage of Allison's outgoing nature and moved into our lives, into our house, into her, for that matter. Not that she probably put up much resistance, he continued.

"They've probably turned the little buggers against me, too," he cried out.

Maybe, just maybe, he thought, it wasn't too late to unbrainwash Trevor if he could get him away from them. He was after all, a highly intelligent child. And Charlee, his beloved Charlee. How he missed his little girl, the way her eyes lit up when he came home, the way she smiled that beautiful smile for him, the time they spent together. Ian was definitely a lost cause and with Amelia's sweet, loving nature, Skinner had probably already wrenched her affection from him.

Basil felt so miserable and wanted to lash out at everything and everyone. What did he have to lose at this point? He'd already been fired. Allison and that blasted homewrecker had done all this to him. If Skinner hadn't influenced Allison, she and the kids would have joined him in England and he wouldn't have had to start drinking, have the affair, etc. "Itsh not my fault!" he yelled as he started the car and drove off. "They're the two who deserve to be punished... they should shuffer, not me."

But Allison was a big 'girl,' he reminded himself -- she could probably strong-arm him out of the house when he went to confront her. And he certainly couldn't be there at the same time as Skinner -- that guy could pulverize me with one hand tied behind his back, he thought.

He kept driving as he tried to talk himself into confronting her anyway.

After a while, he ended up in one of the seedier sections on the outskirts of DC. An idea came to him as he spied someone who'd provided him with extra energy and confidence twice before when he'd been under pressure to excel at the job.

Monday, July 14, 1997, 11:57a.m.

Walt drove his car through the front gates of the cemetery. A feeling of anticipation had been nagging him all morning. It seemed to him that every time he'd glanced at the photo of Anthony and Clare, the feeling intensified. He'd called Allison once to make sure everything was all right, but the impression wouldn't go away. As lunchtime approached, he'd decided to drive out to the cemetery.

As long as I'm already out of the office, he thought, I might as well go home for lunch. Allison's house, he corrected himself; although with as much time as he spent there, it might as well be his home. He smiled recalling how she'd managed to eat the entire sandwich and how between the two of them, they'd eaten a whole bag of potato chips. They'd also stayed up till nearly two in the morning just talking, trying to come p with a permanent game plan to take care of the kids since she and they weren't going anywhere now.

Walt's attention was diverted as he saw a form squatting down in front of Clare's grave. Maybe that's what the feeling was about, he thought. Maybe I'm finally going to learn the identity of the mystery floral delivery man. He felt his stomach lurch as he pulled the car to a stop and the man stood up.

Alex Krycek.

Krycek looked at the car and Walt with an expression Walt recognized as surprise and guilt. He instantly began running toward his vehicle. Walt threw his car back into gear and sped after him, beating Krycek to the car. Alex pulled up, turned 90 degrees and took off again. Walt left his car and ran after him.

When he'd narrowed the gap, Walt pulled out his Sig Sauer 226 and fired a round into the air. "Stop or the next one goes through your knee, Krycek!" Alex wisely didn't test Skinner and stopped, slowly turning around and holding his arms out to the side. Walt continued to advance as he trained his weapon on Krycek. "Very slowly remove your gun and throw it over here."

Alex looked considerably wary. "What guarantee do I have that you won't shoot me?"

An almost-sinister smile crossed Walt's lips. "You don't."

Walt came to a halt about 10 yards from Krycek and marginally relaxed as he complied. "Why are you here? Why have you been leaving flowers on Clare's grave?" Alex slowly lowered his hands and looked quite uncomfortable. "Answer me!"

"Because I cared about her! All right!? She got to me... almost the same way she got to you."

Walt relaxed a trifle more and carefully lowered his arm; he didn't return his weapon to its holster, though.

"Clare wasn't even aware of the effect she had on people. That's one of the reasons she was so good at the job. She made people relax without trying, made them trust her."

A large stormcloud moved in over them and lightning snaked across the sky. Alex looked at the ground a few seconds. "I... I would have married her if she'd told me about our baby."

Walt glared and started to raise the gun again. "How did you find out about that?"

"Cancerman. He showed me the medical report before he had it sent to Iowa. He enjoyed watching my reaction... especially when he told me Clare had aborted the baby because of you." The last words were spat out before Alex looked up at the approaching storm.

Walt couldn't explain it, but he was sure he felt Clare's presence. He held the gun on Krycek. "Be that as it may, I'm taking you into custody."

An exceptionally large flash of lightning brightened the sky and was almost immediately followed by a deafening clap of thunder. The air grew eerily silent and both felt a cool breeze swirl around them. They looked around, not knowing what to expect, but feeling a prickling sensation.

"Not now, mon cher." Walt's expression was instantly startled at hearing Clare's voice.

Alex's green eyes grew incredibly large as he stared at something behind Walt. "Oh... my... God," he whispered.

Walt slowly turned and nearly dropped the gun as he watched Clare's ghost 'walk' through solid marble and granite headstones. He blinked his eyes, sure his mind was playing a trick on him. He turned quickly and saw the same disbelieving expression on Krycek's face. "You're not real," Walt whispered as Clare stopped next to him.

"Yes, I am, mon cher." She brought her hand close to his face and he felt a sudden warmth penetrate his skin. "Go home, mon cher."

He stared at her, still unable to believe. The urgency in her eyes was overpowering, though. Walt reached his hand out to touch her apparition and felt nothing but air. His hand did tingle with warmth, however. He reholstered his weapon and ran back to his car, forgetting Krycek for the time being.

Walt drove recklessly to New Carrollton as he tried Allison's number again. "Damn it!" he yelled as the line was still busy.

He quickly called the operator, identified himself and had her try to break through the line.

"I'm sorry, sir. The phone is off the hook."

Walt mumbled thanks and tried Teresa's number another time. He swore as he got her answering machine again.

What could be going on that was so terrible Clare had risen from her grave to warn him? Cancerman? That would fit with Krycek's appearance, but no, that wasn't it... Basil. It had to be Basil. But even if were drinking, he was supposedly a passive drunk. He certainly wouldn't hurt her or the kids... would he? Walt couldn't take that chance.

He was about to call the police when his phone rang. "Skinner."


Five Minutes Previous

Allison called out the kitchen doors for the kids to come in for lunch. Ian followed her around, carrying the cordless phone, as the front doorbell rang.

"No calling Istanbul, sweetie," she said as she walked out of the kitchen and to the door. Just after she left his sight, but just before the kids came into the house, Ian opened the line and put the phone down behind the plastic bowls in the open shelf unit.

Allison's expression registered surprise as she found Basil on the porch. It quickly changed to scorn as she smelled the overpowering aroma of stale gin. "Go away, B. I'm not talking to you while you're drunk."

He shoved his foot in the door, "Not leaving things shtraighten, Ally fast sho."

She ignored him. "I'll be happy to talk to you when you're sober. Now move that foot before I break it."

"Dare wouldn't."

"Mom?" Trevor hesitantly asked. "Is that Dad?"

She turned to him as Basil pushed his way into the house. "I don't think now's a good time to talk to your father, Trev. Please go back to the kitchen and eat your lunch, okay?"

Trevor nodded with enormous eyes and went back down the hall as Basil moved out of the vestibule and into the drawing room. Allison followed and closed the doors behind them. "Five minutes."

"Fired, Ally, dole put on me."

She shook her head... it was hardly surprising news. "What did you expect, another promotion for impregnating your boss' wife?"

"Act sho high mighty me, Allishon Judith Wright."

She rolled her eyes but kept her distance. Slurred speech she expected, but what was wrong with his sentence delivery, why was everything coming out fragmented and/or scrambled? "It's a shame you couldn't remember my name six weeks ago."

"Your fault. Felicia shlept with wouldn't."

"Oh grow up, B. You can't blame your sexual compulsions on me. Stand up and take responsibility for your own actions."

"Uhmph. Fine one talk. Wanted me out sshack with bald wrecker home."

She shook her head in total surprise. "What the hell are you talking about? What are you on?"

"You and SSkinner." He came closer to her and leered in her face. "Wait till US air shpace cleared?" She glared at him and moved away. "Cuckold me and act better nerve."

"There is absolutely nothing sexual going on between Walt and me."

"Pleashe. Believe liesh no. Shaw two kitchen night last." Allison wrinkled her brow; deciphering his tangled sentences was tiring. She tried to recall anything that could be construed as 'sexual.'

"Itsh wonder not limping impaled with hish shalami -- you ushed to it."

Allison tried to keep her anger down. "If you were this affected last night, it's a wonder you weren't seeing pink elephants."

He came back up in her face. "Didn't want me hanging your titties, let away him ssuck." He grabbed at her breasts, "Milk full loverboy?"

Her eyes blazed fire as she slapped him across the face. "Your time is up. Get out!" She walked to the doors, but Basil grabbed her by the hair and pulled her back, spinning her around and pushing her against the wall. Allison cried out as he pinned her and savagely kissed her.

She glared at him again as he kept his arms on either side of her, his body offensively close. "Matter whatsa, Ally?" he hissed in her face, fumes overpowering, "Good not baldie?"

She slapped him again and kneed him in the groin, but before she could get the doors open, he grabbed her again and returned the slap... plus.

The kids had been huddled by the partly opened dining room doors, listening to the argument. They'd quietly and quickly gone back to the kitchen with frightened expressions before the first slap.

"What do we do?" Trevor entreated as the girls took Ian by the hand and kept him from leaving the kitchen.

Anthony looked to the empty base of the phone and then quickly around the room, including the table. "We need to call my Dad, but where's the phone?"

They all turned to the doorway at Allison's cry and Trevor went back into the dining room. When Anthony looked back at the table, the phone was sitting on it. He quickly grabbed it and punched in his father's office number -- not the cell.


"Dad!" Anthony's frightened voice started. "You have to come home quick. Basil's here. They're yelling at each other, he isn't making sense."

"Where are they, Anthony?"

"In the drawing room."

Trevor came running back, his eyes wide with fear. "Dad's hitting Mom!" he wailed.

Walt overheard this and felt sickened. Visions of a psychotic Basil flashed through his head. "Anthony, listen to me. You have to get out of the house -- I'm very close -- I'll be there in a few minutes. You and Trev need to take Charlee, Amelia and Ian and go to Gramma's house."

"What about Aunt Allison?" he intoned.

The girls and Ian started to cry as Allison's scream pierced the air. Anthony and Trevor's eyes got even more frightened.

Walt heard the scream and felt his anger reaching a breaking point. "Just get out of the house!"

After he disconnected, he thought he should have told Anthony to arm and trip the security system... but that would have meant staying in the house longer, and it was imperative that they get out immediately. If Basil was hitting Allison, who knew what else he was capable of?

"Clare," he pleaded aloud as he dialed 911, "please help them."

Allison dimly heard the alarm go off as Basil threw her against the wall again; blood dripped down her chin from her split lip. Growing up around the docks she'd learned to fight dirty, but the pain emanating from her shoulder made using that arm impossible. And the blows she had landed didn't seem to have had much effect on him. She prayed the neighbors had heard her screams and called the police, just as she prayed that the kids had gotten out of the house.

She looked again at the crazed glow in his bloodshot eyes and knew something other than alcohol was making him this way. She scratched at his face with her left hand as her right arm hung limply by her side. Other than a brief howl, it didn't stop him. It did, however, leave her exposed and he took advantage of that by punching her in the face. As soon as she clutched at her nose, he slammed her head into the wall before proceeding to slap the unprotected parts of her face.

With her senses fogging, she first hit him in the groin again and then kicked his knee. The actions gave her a scant few seconds and she tried for the doors one last time. She was on the verge of opening them when he grabbed her by the hair once more and tossed her to the ground. As she landed on her damaged shoulder, she cried out anew and instinctively pulled her body into a ball to decrease his target area.

Allison whimpered as he repeatedly kicked her side, back and thigh, weakening her. She felt herself losing consciousness and had a parting image of his foot closing in on her head. She noted that she felt no impact just before she blacked out.

The neighbors were gathered out front as Walt approached the house. His stomach lurched again as he saw Anthony and Trevor break free from the crowd and run back in.

The boys yanked open the pocket doors and gasped.

Basil was still kicking Allison's unconscious body yelling 'bloody cuckolding bitch' over and over. What held Anthony's attention, though, was the faint form of a third person shielding Allison from the blows. As Basil looked up to see them, the form moved and Anthony stared at her in wonder.

"Mom?" he whispered.

Clare's form peered at him with urgency. He stared a second longer, giving Basil a chance to move toward them.

Trevor couldn't take his eyes off his mother's bloody face as he backed up. By the time Anthony's tugging of his arm got through to them, Basil had blocked their way to the front door. They ran down the hall with him right behind.

Walt came charging through the front doors just as Basil disappeared into the kitchen. Walt saw Allison's unconscious body and fought back his nausea, looking around for the boys. He heard them screaming in the kitchen and bolted in that direction, drawing his gun as he went.

When Walt reached the doorway, he barely had time to see Trevor holding onto a doorpull with one hand. Basil was yanking on the other one and tore Trevor free -- he went sailing backward, his head hitting the corner of the table. Walt blinked as he swore he'd seen Clare's form between Trevor and the piece of furniture.

His attention was diverted, however, by Anthony's yell as Basil grabbed a dinner knife from the table, then the boy as he tried to get out the other door. Walt leveled his gun at Basil as he held the knife to Anthony's throat and jerkily turned, backing toward the pantry wall. "Drop gun kid cut."

Walt was torn. With the aberrant behavior Basil was displaying, no one could predict what he would do. If Walt refused to drop his weapon, Basil could very possibly carry out his threat... but if he complied, Basil could stab Anthony anyway.

Walt felt the pull of his duty as a father stronger than the pull of being a federal agent, especially when Anthony's terrified eyes locked with his. He put the gun down and kicked it toward the opposite wall, past the table, as he heard the sirens approach.

He watched his son mouth one word, 'Mom,' and then stared in disbelief.

Clare's form appeared around Basil, her expression showing outrage as her hand seemed to grab his. The knife glowed red and Basil howled in pain as he dropped it and released his hold on Anthony.

Walt lunged at him, venting all of his anger. He pummeled Basil well past the point of necessity as the sirens stopped. He punched him for what he did to Allison, to Trevor and nearly to Anthony.

Basil barely fought back and his pleas for Walt to stop went unheeded -- he lost consciousness. Walt's eyes shined with rage and Anthony cowered on the floor next to Trevor's prone form.

Clare partially blocked his last punch and he briefly felt a solidity to her. He stared at her, gasping for breath, and dropped his arm. Walt shifted his eyes from her to see the fear in Anthony's. He took several deep breaths and softened his expression in shame as he watched Clare go back to Anthony and wrap her 'arms' around him. She kissed his forehead and disappeared.

When the police burst into the room a second later, Walt was tenderly and protectively holding Anthony as he cried on his shoulder.

Later that day
Northeast Georgetown Medical Center

Walt sat by Allison's bedside, holding her hand in his bandaged one. Her mouth had swollen from the split lip and several capillaries had broken around her eyes from the repeated blows. The skin around both eyes was discolored and a bandage was taped across her broken nose.

The doctors had reset her dislocated shoulder and her arm was bound to her chest to limit mobility. She'd suffered two broken ribs, a concussion and several of her internal organs had been bruised -- left lung, spleen, kidney and pancreas. He was sure the coloration already present on her thigh would eventually be spectacular as he was equally sure she could have been hurt much worse.

He'd called her parents and they were en route. Her brother and his family were already at the house, having driven down from Philadelphia to help Teresa with Charlee, Amelia and Ian. The girls had cried themselves to sleep and Walt was grateful they hadn't actually seen their father beating Allison.

He looked across to Trevor sleeping in the next bed, Anthony asleep in the chair next to him, still holding his hand. Trevor had suffered a concussion as well and Walt had had to pull some strings to get Trevor and Allison placed in the same room.

When Walt had described Trevor's injury, the doctors had been suspicious. The blow was blunt, not pointed as the impact against the table corner indicated. What Walt described could have likely resulted in a skull fracture, not just a simple concussion. Walt deliberately withheld having seen 'someone' cushion the impact.

His rational mind was still having trouble allowing him to believe everything he'd seen and heard. As he'd driven Anthony to the hospital, they'd haltingly talked about what had happened. How neither Anthony nor Trevor had tripped the alarm and how Anthony had called his office number, not the cell phone one.

A short in the system could explain the alarm, but how could crossed wires have connected Anthony's call to the correct phone? Unless an outside force had manipulated the items. That would explain how the phone had appeared from nowhere, too. But what about the knife? Walt had hesitantly examined it afterward -- it had felt and looked perfectly normal. He'd toyed with sending it to the lab for analysis but decided he didn't want to know.

Anthony had been confused, but relieved to know that Walt had seen and heard Clare, too. It would take a long time for him to understand, though.

Walt looked upward as he realized Clare had been trying to warn him of danger to Allison, and that was why he'd felt the anticipation when he'd looked at that particular picture -- the one in which Clare most closely resembled Allison.

"Thank you, mon amour," he murmured. He felt a warm sensation all throughout his body as he imagined her response.

Allison stirred beside him and slowly opened her swollen eyes. She looked at him through slits as he carefully raised her hand to his lips. "Don't try to talk, Allison. Everything is going to be fine."

She swallowed awkwardly. "De kibs?"

"They're okay." He stroked her hand gently and softly told her about Trevor. "Trev has a concussion, but he'll be released tomorrow. He's right here next to you."

She turned her head slowly to look at him and started to cry. Despite attempts to enunciate, her words came out slurred. "I'b nebber seen Basil lig dat. I couldn't shtop 'im. I wan'ned to yell for de kibs to get out of de house, but I was afraid to remind'im dey were dere."

"It's all right," his voice tenderly soothed. "He can't hurt you again. He's under police guard in the hospital."

"I-I didn't tink I'd hit 'im hard enough to hurd 'im."

"If you didn't, I did." He purposely didn't tell her that he'd fractured Basil's jaw and cheekbone along with several ribs or that he'd ruptured his spleen as well as severely bruised several other internal organs.

"The toxicity report found crack in his system along with a 0.3 alcohol level. The doctors said that that combined with his emotional state could have been more than enough to push him over the edge."

Allison leaned further into the pillows and felt tears spilling from her slitted eyes. "I jusht want dis whole nighdmare to be over. I want to forget, I want de kibs to forget."

He brought her hand back to his lips and kissed it again. "It is over... The healing power of time is very strong. Everybody who loves you and the children will be right by your side to help and support you. Especially me."

He stood and kissed her forehead before gently trailing his fingers down her puffy cheek. "Now rest. Right now your body needs time to recover."


Title: Anthony, Book Two: Old Habits
Author: Clare Skinner

Saturday, October 25, 1997, 2:00p.m.

Walt carefully shifted Amelia to his other shoulder as Allison and Teresa stopped in front of yet another booth. When she'd said 'craft show,' he'd had no idea it would turn into a multiple-hour ordeal or that he'd be carrying around a sleeping, dead-weight Amelia.

They'd gotten there promptly at nine and he'd grimaced when he'd realized there were well over 100 vendors -- and Allison and Teresa were determined to look through each and every booth.

Amelia had started to get sleepy shortly after the barbecue chicken lunch and had adopted a pitiful puppy-dog look to get Walt to carry her. Whether Anthony was coaching her on the look or she'd picked it up from her new puppy, Buster, he wasn't sure. He only knew his heart had melted when she'd fixed those brilliant emerald eyes on him.

The final straw had been when she'd planted a big kiss on his cheek and drawled, 'Pleeaase, Uncle Walt?' He'd wrapped his arms around her from his squatting position and she'd placed her little arms around his neck as he picked her up. She'd beamed... and been asleep five minutes later. And that was nearly an hour ago.

Having her draped across his chest was better than wearing a coat. And with the heat being generated by the thick crowds, he certainly didn't need one. He'd given up explaining that she wasn't his daughter about a half-hour earlier as person after person felt inclined to comment on how cute they looked. And if truth be told, a certain part of him was pleased at the comments.

Amelia sighed in her sleep again and bathed his neck and ear in her soft, warm breath. Oh, yeah, he thought as he shifted her weight again as his shoulders complained, I could get used to this.

"You could try to put her in the stroller again," Allison murmured as she gently stroked Amelia's head.

"Nah. We're fine. Besides, she'll just wake up again."

Allison smiled at him. "Good shape or not, Walt, carrying around 35-pounds of dead-weight for over an hour is going to play havoc with your back."

"Oh, leave the man alone," Teresa countered as she winked at Walt. "He's probably enjoying having a beautiful auburn-haired, green-eyed female clinging to him."

Allison rolled her eyes as Walt played along with the comment. "I don't know that it's ever happened to me before."

"What about Mom? Didn't you think she was beautiful?" Anthony asked as he tugged on Walt's pant leg.

Walt shot Teresa a 'thanks very much' look as she ducked into the next booth with Charlee. Trevor stood by the stroller as Allison tried to keep Ian from knocking over a display. "Of course your mother was beautiful, Anthony. She was very beautiful, but she didn't have auburn hair at the same time she had green eyes, remember?"

"Oh, yeah," he replied, bumping Trevor as the two took off into the next booth.

Allison smiled apologetically. "Another half hour, I promise, Walt... Ian, we don't need that."

Ian reluctantly let go of a tall, wooden sunflower and walked back to Walt, wrapping his arms around his leg and beaming up into his face. "Dada."

Walt knew better than to look at Allison; he knew she still felt guilty every time Ian called him that. She hung her head and took Ian's hand. "Come on, sweetie. Uncle Walt can't hold both of you at the same time."

Teresa and Charlee were about two booths ahead. Allison heard Charlee squeal. "Hi, Aunt Brett!"

Walt looked up at the name. "Who is Aunt Brett?" he asked.

"She makes clothes for Cabbage Patch and American Girl dolls. You can put Amelia down now."

"But she'll wake up."

"This is her favorite booth. If we let her sleep through it, she'll never forgive us."

Walt finished walking to the booth just as 'Aunt Brett' started talking to Charlee. "Of course I remember you, Charlee. How could I forget that beautiful smile? You and your sister are my two favorite customers. Where is Amelia?"

"Uncle Walt's holding her," Charlee muttered absently.

Brett looked toward Allison as she appeared at the entrance, now carrying Ian. "Hello, Allison. My goodness, Ian certainly has grown. I hardly recognized him." She smiled at Walt as he was trying to get Amelia to release him.

"Come on, sweetheart. Your mommy says you like this booth." He was now squatting again, trying to divest himself of his sleep burden, while Amelia was trying to keep her head buried in his shoulder.

"Amelia," Allison's soothing voice started, "don't you want to say hello to Aunt Brett and pick out some new clothes for Rorie and Eve?" Allison felt a wave of nausea pass over her and put Ian down. Walt noticed the sudden stillness that seemed to envelop her, and held his breath as he watched her, suddenly concerned.

Amelia perked up and gave Walt another kiss before dropping her arms, turning around and giving Brett a big hug. "I'm happy to see you too, sweetheart," Brett announced. "Go ahead and pick out your clothes."

Brett turned as Trevor and Anthony reappeared. "Trevor, you get more handsome every time I see you." He bashfully dropped his head and scuffed his foot along the ground. Brett extended her hand to Anthony. "You must be Anthony, I'm very pleased to meet you." He shyly shook her hand. She turned around, retrieved two books from under the tables and handed them to the boys. "Uncle Avery wanted me to give these to you." Both boys' eyes lit up at the titles -- 'Exploring the Origins of the Universe' and 'The Kingfisher Young People's Book of Oceans' -- and they enthusiastically thanked her before disappearing again, nearly tripping several people in their way.

"Stay close, you two," Allison called after them and cautiously drained the rest of her drink.

Walt relaxed as the greenish cast faded from Allison's face and he held onto Ian. He continued to watch the scene with a trace of confusion as Brett spoke quietly to Allison and patted her hand in a comforting manner. Charlee and Amelia were each picking out about four outfits for both types of dolls and even though the prices were very reasonable, he didn't think Allison would go for buying all of them.

He watched as she picked four of the most expensive items from each pile and winked at Brett, who rang up the purchase and carefully put aside the other eight outfits.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Allison apologized. "Walt, Brett Freeman. Brett, Walter Skinner." They shook hands and murmured hellos. "Brett lives in Philly, on the same block as my brother." The girls took their purchases, hugged 'Aunt Brett' and followed Teresa out. "What I don't buy for the girls, Avery does and gives to them for Christmas," Allison explained in hushed tones.

Walt shook his head in understanding as Ian tried to take off his glasses. "Ian, you can't have my glasses." Walt pulled out his keys instead and gave them to him as Ian mumbled 'dada' a few more times. Good-byes were quickly exchanged as Walt, Ian and Allison left.

It was nearly 3:15p.m. when they got home. Walt decided if he didn't see another dried/silk flower arrangement, quilted pillow or ceramic Christmas tree for a year, it would be much too soon.

"I can't believe you arranged to go into work two hours late just for a craft show."

"It's a one-day event," Allison proclaimed.

"Even if it were two days, you'd still go today and you know it," Teresa refuted with a wink.

"Well, all the best stuff is there the first day," Allison countered, rubbing her head.

Walt rolled his eyes. He hoisted the fabric-covered footstool from the van and noted that the inner cavity of the item was filled with more bags as he felt the extra weight and heard it shift. "Where do you want this?"

"It goes in Ian's room, but you can leave the stuff inside it on the table."

They grabbed the last bags and went into the house. The kids came down from the second floor, Charlee holding her birthday kitten, Tabitha, while the rest, except for Ian, went into the basement laundry room to get Buster.

Allison wandered down the hall to retrieve the mail. She flipped through it quickly, until she came to an envelope from her attorney. She ripped it open and stood staring at the papers within, at her copy of the final divorce papers.

+ + + + + +

Friday, July 18, 1997, 2:00p.m.
Office of Attorney Brian Massing

Allison sat stiffly in the leather conference chair as Massing finished taking down notes. She had dark sunglasses to mask the still-present, and temporarily deepened, discoloration around her eyes. Most of the swelling had dissipated, but her lip was still sore. She also had her arm in a sling. The doctors thought it a good idea to keep her shoulder immobilized a full week to aid the healing of the ligaments.

Walt sat beside her, having a hard time remaining silent. Allison had agreed to his accompanying her only under the condition that he keep his opinions out of the meeting.

Massing looked up. "All right, Allison, let's take this from the top. Basil isn't contesting the divorce and isn't asking for anything in the settlement other than," he named a sum, "and his car, uh," Brian flipped a few pages, "the Miata."

Walt snorted and pursed his lips while Allison pinched his hand in response.

Massing continued. "The house, furnishings, van and the balance of the investments/bank accounts are to be yours. And as far as the children are concerned, he's agreed to your having full custody and is volunteering child support," he flipped another page, "to be garnered from his biweekly paycheck effective 10 weeks from now."

"The ass is lucky another company was willing to hire him," Walt muttered under his breath. Allison lowered her glasses and shot Walt a warning look.

"And as far as visitation with the children is concerned, supervised only for the first year, one day a month and no leaving the DC area."

"I want him to be able to see them as much as he wants at Christmas, when his parents are here," Allison interjected, knowing that right now, the kids, especially Trevor, were afraid of their father.

"Too damned forgiving," Walt muttered again.

Allison turned to him and seriously uttered her words, accenting both heavily. "Shut up."

Massing looked at both oddly and went on. "I just need your signature on a few pages then and we can get the paperwork processed and recorded. With both parties agreeable, the whole thing should take three months, barring any unforeseen complications." He pushed the papers toward Allison and she carefully signed them, keeping her right hand close to her body. The three stood up shortly afterward, shook hands and separated.

When she and Walt were ensconced alone in the elevator, she slapped his face with hurt in her eyes behind the glasses.

"You said you'd support my decisions, not belittle them, especially in front of Brian. Damn it, Walt! You promised to keep your mouth shut."

He rubbed his cheek with controlled fire in his eyes. "How can you expect me to stay quiet when you're letting that s.o.b. get away with everything? For God's sake, Allison, you wouldn't press charges against him and you actually helped him get another job." She huffed at him and looked away. "I knew I should never have let you see him alone; restrained or not, he got to you. Made you pity him, forgive him, and now he's running roughshod over you."

Her own eyes were blazing as she turned back and removed the shades. "And what about my talking him out of pressing charges against you? He could start the job much sooner if you hadn't beat the shit out of him. Jesus, Walt! He has to eat through a straw because of what you did to his face."

He glared back at her and touched her cheek with more force than he'd meant to. "And he didn't do damage to your face?"

She smacked his hand away. "Basil's violent behavior can be explained by the alcohol and crack. You don't have that luxury. You're a federal agent, you're supposed to know better than to let personal feelings interfere."

"goddamn it, Allison! He beat you into unconsciousness, threw Trevor against the table and threatened Anthony. What did you expect me to do?"

She took a halting breath to calm down, but the strain and anger in her voice remained. "The force was excessive... we both know that. Anthony told me how Basil begged you to stop and you wouldn't. The police were already there and no one was in any further danger. The only reason you kept hitting him was, was..."

The elevator chugged to a stop. "Do you honestly think I was conscious of what I was doing? That I was deliberately trying to kill him?" Allison refused to meet his eyes and walked out of the elevator doors, leaving him behind. "Allison... Allison!"

+ + + + + +

"Allison?" Walt came into the vestibule and found her sitting on one of the benches, the mail scattered next to her as she continued to stare at the divorce decree.

She jumped at his voice. "It's official," she thinly avowed as she stood up. "I'm a free woman."

Walt took the sheets from her as she turned and stared out the sidelight. "That has to be a new record, you only signed these three days ago." He looked up as she was silent and walked behind her, wrapping his arms around her. "What are you thinking about?"

Allison turned and vacantly looked at him as he kept his arms around her. "Old habits. How seven years ago, if I'd gotten divorced, I would have celebrated by going out and getting drunk."

He gently placed his fingers under her lowered chin and brought it back up. "But you know better than that now, right?"

She pulled away from him and started to trudge toward the inner doorway. "Of course. Nothing changes by drinking -- all your problems are still there when you sober up." She stared briefly at the closet door in front of her. "I, uh, have to get ready for work."

She left and Walt sat down on the bench. He let his mind drift back to the day of their fight, the only time he'd seriously thought their friendship was in trouble.

+ + + + + +

Friday, July 18, 1997, about 5:45p.m.

Walt pulled his car into the driveway and tried to decide again what to do. Allison's last words to him had been 'Go back to work, I don't want you near me.' The words had stung and he'd been moodier than usual all afternoon, snapping at everyone.

He sat in the car still debating whether he should get Anthony and go or try to talk to Allison again, apologize for breaking his word, for losing his temper, for straining their friendship. He made up his mind and entered the house. Allison's mother stopped him in the hall.

"I think it will be best if you take Anthony and leave, Walt. Allison doesn't want to talk to you."

"I have to see her, Jude. We need to talk, to work this out."

"It took two hours for her to calm down before. I don't want her upset again. Wait a few days, give her time."

He knew by the way she was edging toward the stairs that Allison was in her bedroom. "Please, Jude. I swear I won't upset her again."

"It seems like you've broken a promise before," Allison's father replied as he strolled out of the family room holding Ian.

Walt hung his head briefly, his eyes full of remorse and sorrow as he sincerely spoke. "I know, and I'm truly sorry."

Ian reached out for him with a big toothy grin and uttered, "Dada."

Walt sadly smiled as he took Ian and kissed his head. Both of Allison's parents shared the expression. "Please, I don't want Allison hurting because of me. Just let me apologize and we'll go."

"All right," Jude assented as she glanced at her husband, "but don't make us sorry we agreed to this."

Walt climbed the stairs, cautiously approached the bedroom and quietly entered. He found Allison curled up on a chair, a picture frame balanced on her left knee. He couldn't see her face as she stared at the photo.

"Allison?" his apologetic voice was velvety smooth. "Allison, I'm so..." he broke off as she sightlessly looked up, eyes bloodshot and swollen from intermittent crying. He dryly swallowed as his heart ached at her forlorn expression. After two unsuccessful attempts to speak again, he got down on his knees in front of her and gently pulled her feet to the floor.

Her eyes widened and she seemed confused at the actions. He tenderly placed his hands on her bare thighs. "Don't," she hoarsely whispered.

Walt didn't know what she was thinking and softly massaged her knees as he felt her tense up. "Allison, please, just relax. I didn't come here to argue with you anymore."

She closed her eyes and he felt a small amount of tension leave her body. "I came up to apologize," his silky voice continued. "I never should have said those things at Massing's office, broken my promise. I was way out of line and you were justified in becoming angry with me."

Allison took his hands as she opened her eyes and removed them from her thighs, at the same time murmuring 'no.' She stood up and rubbed her hands along her upper arms. Walt noticed the T-shirt she was wearing was so long that it covered her shorts, making her appear to be half-dressed.

He wondered if she had mistaken his innocent hand placement for something else.

"No, Walt. I'm the one who owes you an apology. You're just trying to look out for me, protect me. Slapping you was uncalled for... as was my insinuation about--"

He'd followed her and now placed his fingers against her lips. "Don't say it."

She took his hand away. "I have to. I realize you were caught up in the moment and in many ways couldn't control what you were doing. You were running on adrenaline, just like Basil was. Saying you were more at fault because you had no drugs in your system was completely wrong and below the belt. I'm sorry."

He gently ran his fingers along her cheek and jaw -- she leaned into his touch. Walt noted that with the redness in her eyes from crying, her pupils had an almost violet glow to them. Just one more color in the rainbow across her face, he thought. "Let's put all this behind us and move forward. Wasn't it you who said friends forgive all sorts of transgressions?"

+ + + + + +

Allison emerged from the walk-in closet wearing a snugger-fitting dress than usual. She wandered into the bathroom to check her make-up, brush her teeth and smooth her hair, thinking of Basil's expression a few days before.

+ + + + + +

Wednesday, October 22, 1997, 10a.m.
Massing's Office

Allison felt as though she'd signed so many papers that her signature didn't look right anymore. Ugh, she thought to herself, bad pun. She looked across to Basil as he finished signing the last sheet.

It was the first she'd seen of him since July. All the facial injuries had healed, as had hers, but there was still an overwhelming sense of guilt emanating from him whenever he glanced her way.

"I believe that's everything," Brian said as he gathered up the numerous pages. "I'll have my clerk get these documents registered in the County Court House and my office will mail you your official copies."

"Brian, could we use your office a few moments?"

He looked at Allison, surprised at the request. "All right. I'll be outside if you need... " Basil hung his head at the implication. "I'll be outside," Brian restated and hurriedly left.

Allison walked to the other side of the table and took Basil's hand. "How are you, B?"

He looked even guiltier at the gentleness and concern in her tone. He hesitantly brought her hand to his lips and kissed it. "I'm getting better. The doctors are helping me work through everything. The alcoholism, the sexual compulsion, the low self-esteem." He looked away. "The occasional drug use. I've got a long way to go, but... but I'm determined to break the cycle. I just wish," he swallowed hard and forced himself to gaze into her eyes. "I wish I hadn't bollixed up everything first. Especially that I hadn't hurt you and Trev." He stared into her eyes and Allison saw his genuine regret and pain. "Ally, I am so very sorry for hurting you both. I was so messed up I was hallucinating. I knew you'd never be unfaithful, that you and Walt were just friends."

Allison trailed her fingers lightly across his cheek. "I forgive you, B; and I still care... I always will. It'll take the kids longer, though, and I'm sorry for that. Please believe that I'm not bad-mouthing you to them."

He took her hand and kissed it again. "I know that. You've done so much for me already. Thank you again for getting me the new job."

She laughed sadly. "I just wish the territory weren't so far away. Eight hundred miles is a long distance to try to rebuild your relationship with the kids. Are you sure I can't give you some of the furniture?"

"No, I'm making do. And I swear as soon as the health insurance picks up, I'll start paying you the full child support, and I'll make up what I owe you. Right now, the psychiatrist bills are eating me alive."

She placed her fingers gently against his lips. "I believe you, B -- I wish I could tell you to forget about it, but you know our, uh, my monthly expenses."

He smiled sadly and held her hand. "I hate your having to dip into savings, especially after giving me the money to start over with. It makes me feel even worse about all this..."

She turned briefly away while he regained control. He continued to hold onto her hand and tugged gently to get her to look at him again. "You really look wonderful, Ally. You don't look any older than when we first met."

She smiled, thinking if he'd seen her about an hour earlier, he wouldn't have said she looked so good. He reached for his briefcase and removed two small packages. "Would you give these to Charlee and Amelia? It isn't much, sort of belated birthday presents. They're just collars and name tags for Tabitha and Buster. At least with me out of the picture, the kids can finally have pets."

"Oh, B." Allison squeezed his hand as he blinked a few tears back. "Why don't you give Amelia her present yourself? She and Ian are outside with Walt. I-I wanted you to be able to see the kids before you went back, but Trev and Charlee wouldn't--"

"It's all right, I understand." He deliberately cut her off, as she assumed he would -- not wanting to hear her say his children didn't want to see him.

They started to walk to the door and Allison hesitated a moment. "B. I have to tell you something before we go out there. Ian's talking a bit and... and he calls Walt 'dada.' I just wanted to warn you." She saw him swallow heavily before they went out to the reception area.

Ian was sitting on Walt's lap while Walt had his arm around Amelia. She was resting her head against his chest. Walt carefully put Ian down as he stood up and Amelia hung on his leg. Ian was far more outgoing and walked to Basil, who gratefully picked him up. "Hello there, little buddy."

Ian gave him a big hug before wiggling down and walking back to Walt with arms open wide. "Dada, dada."

Allison watched the hurt expression cross Basil's face... it was only a split second, but it was profound. "Amelia, honey, would you give Dad a hug?"

Her daughter looked up at her with those expressive eyes and reluctantly released her hold to walk over to Basil. He knelt and enveloped her. It was Allison's turn to blink back tears as Walt picked Ian up and gently squeezed her hand.

+ + + + + +

Allison focused on the mirror and noticed she'd put on more make-up than she usually wore. She started to take some off but decided she didn't care. She grabbed a pair of pumps and went downstairs.

"Aren't you a bit overdressed for work?" Walt asked as she went by him.

"Just felt like it. I can always kick off the shoes, no one can see my feet behind that partition." She grabbed the keys to his car -- the van stayed with the kids -- and hollered good-bye to them.

"Don't bother waiting up for me, Walt. After all that walking around at the craft show and the way I've been so tired all week, I'm just going to want to drop into bed when I get home. Especially if I've still got this headache." She grabbed a can of caffeinated soda from the fridge.

"Are you sure you're all right?" he queried while taking her hand.

Allison weakly smiled, "Actually, I am feeling a bit better than the last few days." She tugged her hand back from his grasp. "I gotta go, we can talk tomorrow."

He smiled as he watched her leave. She definitely needs to talk... maybe I should stop by the store later tonight and see how's she doing, he thought.


Walt was on his way back from the drugstore, deep in thought and worry. Allison hadn't been there... she'd called in sick at the last minute according to the pharmacist working, called in with the flu. Walt could only think of one reason for her to do that -- to go off and get drunk.

How was he going to find her? There were a ridiculous number of bars in the DC area. He'd never be able to check them all and calling each one probably wouldn't yield much in the way of results. Having a picture to wave at the bartender would be more beneficial. He could always drag Scully and Mulder into searching for her with him... no, that wouldn't work. They were off in Louisiana on a case.

Despite his concerns, he doubted that McIntire would approve of using Bureau resources to find her. Which left reporting his car as stolen and having Allison hauled off to the drunk tank. "God, I can't do that either," he grunted aloud.

Walt gazed at Teresa's look of relief as he entered the house.

"Hold on a minute, he just walked in." She covered the phone's mouthpiece and looked at him with wide, concerned eyes. "Allison is drinking. She's in Philadelphia."

He took the phone, thinking he'd never have looked there. "Who is this?"

"Mr. Skinner, it's Brett Freeman -- we met at the craft show today," he mumbled something unintelligible in reply. "I got back from DC a little while ago and decided to go out for a drink. The bartender said Allison's been here since 6:15p.m." Which meant she'd been drinking for three hours, he thought. "The bar is called the Lamplighter..."

He quickly jotted down the directions she gave him. "If you can't get her to leave with you, I'd very much appreciate it if you'd stay with her till I get there." She agreed and he hung up. "Can you stay--"

"Of course," Teresa interrupted. "You'd better just take the van, you won't survive behind the wheel of my little car for two-plus hours."

He nodded and started through the doors. "And Walt?" he turned back to her. "Take it easy on her. She had to be feeling pretty miserable to start drinking again."

About 11:45p.m.
Lamplighter Pub, Philadelphia, PA

Walt exited the van and was relieved to see his car still in one piece. Now if only Allison is the same, he thought.

He hurriedly entered the establishment and saw her immediately. She had a cigarette dangling from her mouth and was in the middle of making a shot at the pool table. She barely hit the cue-ball and missed all the others. Allison was laughing as she grabbed her drink and drained it.

He could hardly recognize her as she turned partly around and arched an eyebrow at him. The clothes, hair and make-up were the same, barely, but her face looked wholly different. There was a hard, reckless edge to it, a sense of arrogance and raw sensuality. Her make-up was smudged here and there and she was close to not wearing the dress. It was unbuttoned clear up to her mid-thigh and down far enough to indicate that she'd removed her bra, a fact that was all too easily verified as she bent over the table from the opposite side.

"She started smoking about an hour ago," Brett informed as she wandered over to him. "And she's had three whiskies and three Cokes since I got here. She seems to be alternating the alcohol with the caffeine." Brett shook her head. "Nothing I've said has gotten through to her, but she has, uh, hot-footed it to the bathroom twice." Walt noticed she managed to discreetly avert her eyes, even if her tone did have a hint of reprimand -- he also assumed she was thinking Allison was pregnant. "I'm really glad you're here," she continued. "I know people think bikers are bad news, but those two preppies have been hanging off her for the last 30 minutes."

Walt glanced at the two in question as one wrapped his hands around Allison's buttocks and pulled her toward him. She didn't seem to mind in the least and looked lustfully into his eyes. "Buy me another drink, Parker, and we can discuss the rest of the evening's activities."

Walt was surprised at her voice. Surprised she wasn't slurring her words, that she sounded in control and that her voice had such a seductive quality to it. "Anything you say, AJ." Parker leered at her in his own near drunken state and they slithered to the counter. "Another whiskey, straight up, barkeep."

"Thanks for staying, Ms. Freeman. I'll take it from here," Walt uttered before walking to the other end of the counter. "Allison, you've had more than enough. It's time to go," he advocated.

Parker whirled around and glared at Walt. "Hey buddy, she's with me and Vance. Go find your own squeeze."

Walt ignored him as he placed his hand on Allison's elbow. She looked at him with a pronounced 'mind your own business' stare. "I'm not ready to leave, Walt. Besides, Parker, Vance and I already have plans."

Walt sighed in disgust as Vance sidled up to the bar for support and Allison drained her latest drink in two swallows. "I don't think the lady wants you bothering her, cue-ball," Vance mumbled at Walt.

Walt glared at both of them and tightened his grip on her elbow. "Allison, please, let's not make a scene."

Parker moved around her and knocked Walt's hand away. "Are you hard of hearing, old man? Take a hike."

Walt glared some more and grabbed Parker's wrist, twisting it behind him and pushing the guy against the bar. Vance was about to intercede, so Walt pushed his coat back far enough for his weapon to be visible.

"Oh, enough, Walt. Let him be," Allison said with a bored, seductive tone.

The bartender finally made an attempt to intervene. "Take it outside before I call the cops."

"That's not a bad idea," Vance whined as Walt released Parker and Parker rubbed his shoulder. "This guy just threatened me with a gun."

With another sigh of disgust, Walt reached into his pocket and retrieved his ID. The preppies decided Allison wasn't worth the trouble and beat a hasty retreat. The bartender shot him a disgruntled look while Allison merely stretched seductively and purred at him. "You sure know how to ruin a girl's evening."

"How much have you had to drink?"

She leaned back against the counter and smiled. "I stopped counting at one."

"Come on," he muttered as he took her arm, "we'll get a room and a gallon of coffee."

She yanked her arm away from him. "Coffee and B12 shots don't work. Time's the only reliable detox method." She signaled the bartender and flashed a five. "And I don't plan on helping it yet."

Walt grabbed the money from her and waved the bartender away. "We're leaving, Allison."

She backed away from him. "You don't own me, Walt, and you're not my husband or my father... so just bugger off."

She wandered a few paces to the jukebox, fumbled around in her pocket for change and selected a song appropriate for the way she was acting -- George Michael's 'I Want Your Sex.'"I'm not leaving till you dance with me."

He pursed his lips in a petulant manner as he looked down. "You'll come quietly?"

"I'm not making any promises," she purred as she slid her hips slightly off rhythm to the music. Then her hands started unfastening another button and Walt quickly went to her, wrapping both of her arms around him. Almost immediately Allison had one leg between his and was rubbing her body against him.

He tried to ignore her, but when her lips began kissing his neck and throat roughly, he realized he couldn't -- or at least his body couldn't. "Stop it, you're making a spectacle of yourself," he tried to lecture.

She gazed up at him. "Oh, I haven't even started."

Before he could stop her, she'd undone another button. The effect was aided by the fact that she purposely pushed her breasts together with her upper arms as her hands slid into his jeans.

He dragged his eyes away and felt a flush of embarrassment that she was able to distract him like that. He grabbed her hands and hoped his eyes wouldn't betray the effect she was having on him. "Behave."

Allison shoved out her lower lip in an exaggerated pout and dragged her hands across his groin and over to his gun. "I'm not going to stop until this portion of your anatomy," and she grabbed his penis through the jeans, "is as hard as your weapon." She paused long enough to lick his chin, eyes gleaming. "The question is, do you have the guts to use either?"

That was enough for him. Walt quickly refastened two of her buttons, grabbed her by the wrist and dragged her several paces. She'd learned a few tricks from the kids and dropped to the floor. He glared at her, an edge to his voice by now. "Get up or I'll sling you over my shoulder and carry you out like a spoiled brat."

Her eyes brightened. "Promise? And will you spank me too?"

He swore at her, yanked her back to her feet and did indeed toss her over his shoulder. The only embarrassment was Walt's as she laughed all the way to the parking lot. He deposited her next to the van and took out the keys. "Where's your coat?"

Allison sashayed over to him and snatched the keys from his hand. "In your car, along with my underthings."

He rolled his eyes and tried to grab for the keys. She kicked off the pumps and ran away from him. When he reached her, she utilized another time-honored trick from the kids by keeping her hands in continual motion and switching the keys from hand to hand. "Goddamn it, Allison! This isn't a game and it's not funny."

She simply smiled more at him, placed one hand at her waist and dropped the keys down her dress. "Life is a game, Walt. And I think this is very funny. You want the keys, come get 'em."

He shook his head at her childishness. "I should just leave you here. You obviously want something to happen to you."

She took a few steps to him. "And since you've scared off my two young chaps, you'll have to take care of my needs."

Walt fanned the air from the fumes she blew his way. The miasma of alcohol was almost thick enough to slice. "All right." He grabbed her by the elbows, pulled her close against him and solidly kissed her. Her hands instantly reached for his neck as he released her elbows.

He pushed her away after the keys hit the pavement and grabbed them before she could. A vision of having to chase her all around the parking lot came to mind, so he tossed her over his shoulder again and took her back to the van, picking up her shoes on the way.

Walt kept her on his shoulder while he unlocked her side. He wondered what he'd do when she inevitably decided to distract him while he was driving. His hands lighted on the handcuffs inside his coat, but he hated to do that. Maybe just the suggestion of using them would serve to keep her in line. Walt stood her up and removed the cuffs; she willingly climbed onto the seat with a look of new arousal.

"Bondage, Walt? I had no idea. You certainly have some fascinating layers." She leaned toward him to nip his chin while he replaced the cuffs in his pocket. "And I'm looking forward to seeing every one."

Allison seemed oddly more composed, certainly better behaved as he unlocked the door to the room they'd be sharing. In her frame of mind, he'd thought it a bad idea to get two rooms -- better to have one so he could keep an eye on her.

As he took his coat off and she sat on the bed, he watched her pop another mint in her mouth. He also quickly realized she wasn't giving up as she crossed and recrossed her legs in a manner that would have made Sharon Stone's character in 'Basic Instinct' proud.

He turned away and bit his lip, knowing that her behavior in the bar had started to get to him. Not that she'd held much back in that atmosphere, but here?... He was going to be in severe trouble if he didn't come up with some way to avoid her advances. Come up? That's great, Walt, he said to himself, you're off to a promising start.

He felt her behind him a second before her arms were wrapped around his body and she was unbuttoning his shirt. When she started rubbing her body against him again, he turned around and removed her hands, this time holding onto them. "No, Allison. I am not sleeping with you."

She flashed that smile again and rubbed her knee against his thigh. "Personally, I'm not concerned with the sleep aspect."

He tried to hold both of her hands in one of his, unsuccessfully since she wouldn't hold still, as he pushed her knee away. "You're drunk, you don't know what you're doing."

Allison pulled his shirt out of his jeans and arched an eyebrow as she went back to unbuttoning it. "If you're waiting for me to slur 'I'm not so think as you drunk I am,' Hawkeye, you'll have a long evening."

He stopped her again and pushed her back a few steps. "Well, Major Hoolihan, I have no desire to find out if your lips really are hot."

"Funny you should mention desire, Walt."

He looked up to see her unbuttoning her dress again. He swallowed heavily and stopped refastening his shirt. "Don't do it, Allison." He could hear the longing in his own voice, to his chagrin.

She smiled in satisfaction and briefly pulled the now completely unbuttoned dress around her. "What? Are you going to dare me not to?" Walt turned back around just as she threw open the dress and let it slide off her body. Even so, he'd seen more than he wanted to. He heard the bed creak and found his fingers wouldn't cooperate with his shirt anymore. "Look at me."

He bowed his head against the windows with the feeling that he was fighting a losing battle. And he knew he had to win it in order to keep their friendship. He answered her with a croak. "No."

"If you don't turn around and tell me you don't want me, don't want this body, I won't leave you alone all night."

Okay, Walt, he said to himself, you can do this. Just turn around, look her directly in the eye and say it. He banged his head against the windows, knowing it wouldn't be that simple... that after a year of celibacy, his body wanted this.

God, he felt like he had no control over the situation, felt so off-balance. He was used to being the aggressor for first encounters; being on the other end was foreign. He took a deep breath and willed his body to fall in line with his mind.

He turned around and felt the air explode out of his lungs. Allison had placed the bed pillows behind her, to prop herself up. She leaned back on them, spread-eagled, one hand fondling her extraordinary breasts, the other stroking an inner thigh. Her eyes were a deep, deep turquoise and she was licking her lips. Oh shit, shit, shit, he said to himself. "Well?" she purred.

Walt swallowed with difficulty and felt his erection getting harder. "I don't..." Oh, God, he thought. "I don't..." He swallowed again reflexively, even though there was no saliva left in his mouth as her hand strayed to her pubic hair. He knew his eyes were glazing over as he hoarsely whispered, "I don't know how much longer I can resist you."

Walt immediately turned back around and continued to fight the battle. Allison got off the bed and walked back to him.

"Don't resist. It wastes so much energy. Energy that could be put to much better use." His mind started to reel as she pulled his shirt down and pressed her full, plump breasts against his bare back. She reached around him and unfastened the buttons on his cuffs plus the sole one on the front he'd refastened -- then she got rid of the shirt entirely.

Allison turned him around and reached for his glasses. "We don't want these to break." She walked back to the nightstand and put them down.

Walt opened his eyes and shut them again. He felt rooted to the spot, and now that he'd glimpsed her still-tanned, rounded body again, he felt another wave of arousal wash over him.

"God, I must have been blind before to miss the fact that you have such a gorgeous chest." She ran her hands heavily across it and deeply sighed. "So massive and muscled and strong." He gasped as she buried her face in the soft, curly hair and started kissing him. Please, God, he thought, give me strength to resist her.

Her breasts were about level with his abdomen as she continued to wetly kiss his chest, lick at his nipples and finally start to suckle them. Walt groaned and weakly pulled her head away. "No, Allison, please. We can't... I can't..."

"Can't what?" She reached down to his jeans and unfastened them as he groaned again. "Give in to passion? Maybe you need those glasses more than I thought if you can't see that I did a long time ago."

She had the zipper down and her hand grazed his gun. "I believe my previous objective has been met. Shall I?" He felt the pressure of her hand against the gun and quickly unfastened the holster, putting it on the chair with his coat.

Allison gently grasped his erection and he screwed his eyes shut tight. "Oh, I think I'm going to be sore in the morning. At the very least, I'll definitely know where you've been."

She went back to kissing him as she pushed the jeans down and the first sensation of dizziness started to cascade over her.

He felt her lips, mouth and tongue like fire against his flesh, pleasantly burning him with passion out of control. He couldn't think straight.

Allison decisively rubbed her abdomen against his aching and swollen member and he groaned again. I can't... he thought. Her mouth was claiming his throat when he finally stopped her, staring into her eyes. "I can't... resist you any longer."

Her smile was triumphant as she challenged him one last time. "Prove it."

He ran his hands slowly, deliberately up her body, pausing to fondle her bountiful breasts before he held her face tenderly between his hands. She rolled her eyes in anticipation and he began unleashing his passion in several all-consuming kisses.

For the next few moments, the dizziness abated as Walt supported her and plunged his tongue ever deeper into her mouth. His senses registered the powerful taste of peppermint, along with that of whiskey and cigarettes. He broke away from her mouth and started ravishing her throat and ear while her body melted in his arms. Allison didn't manage to say anything for a while after that except 'yes' as his mouth continued to devour her.

When she arched back, his head descended to one enlarged and very erect nipple. Because of her ample breasts, he wasn't able to take all that much of her, but it was still plenty and he suckled with great enthusiasm. His hands pressed very firmly against her buttocks before he started kneading the flesh between his fingers.

She let him have his way a few delectable moments longer before pulling his head back up and kissing him again, this time thrusting her tongue in his mouth. Allison pushed his briefs down until they reached his jeans and then pushed both items as far as her hands could reach. She pulled away a few seconds later and backed toward the bed, holding onto his hands as he followed her.

Allison sat on the edge and watched the devious smile spread across his face as he carefully knelt before her and captured one breast. He hungrily suckled and she held his head tenaciously to her, covering its smooth surface with sloppy kisses as he pushed two fingers inside her. He quickly realized he could probably add a third as she groaned and continued oozing on him. He pulled his head away and looked up at her, the passionate glow from both their eyes overwhelming. "You are definitely ready," he rasped.

She rolled her eyes and felt the dizziness returning. "What do you think I've been trying to tell you?" He grinned and sat next to her as he started to remove his boots. "Don't bother," she said taking his hand. "Leave 'em on, it's more erotic that way." He pulled his hand back before she started to suck on his fingers. "Just fuck me already."

She scrambled further up the bed as he pushed the jeans and briefs down his calves and turned to cover her. "What about protection?"

Allison felt her mouth water as she eyed his tremendous erection hovering above her groin. "I'm still on the pill and I trust you. Just do it."

He knew all the blood tests had come back negative, but years of caution overrode his body's need. He reached down to his wallet and retrieved the condom in it. Allison watched him through rapidly hazing eyes and groaned. "I bet you were a Boy Scout, too."

She quickly grabbed the condom and put it on him as he grinned again. "As a matter of fact..."

He moved between her legs, realizing that the break in the action had done nothing to diminish his desire. He slowly eased his throbbing appendage into her as she groaned, which immediately caused him to stop, which caused her to groan even more. "I know my body, Walt. Just ram it home."

"We're doing this my way or not at all." Even so, he pushed himself fully in on the next thrust. Any thoughts he had about gradually working up the pace were abandoned as she furiously thrust against him. He lowered his body over her and sought her mouth again, feverishly kissing her.

Allison felt fantastically charged -- but she also knew she was losing consciousness. She felt the orgasm go searing through her body, touching every part of her and she loudly yelled her appreciation. She also uttered some very ill-advised words. "Oh, God, Walt! I don't care if you're thinking I'm Clare, just make me come like that again."

He stopped dead in his tracks, the mood completely blown for him. Walt gazed at Allison's face with alarm and dismay before quickly pulling out. She was just about to question his actions when unconsciousness claimed her.

Sunday, October 26, 1997, about 8a.m.

Allison rolled over and snuggled against a warm, fuzzy chest as her hand landed between its owner's legs. She slowly started to wake up and felt her head start to pound with a simple intake of air.

alt="Anthony Book Oh, God, she thought, what have I done? She barely moved while she waited for memory to return. Her senses registered what was under the fabric beneath her hand and she cringed. Whoever this guy was, his morning erection indicated that he was damned well-hung. She prayed she'd retained enough sense to insist on a condom as a faintly perceptible ache from her loins made its presence known. She also felt an odd soreness in her right shoulder and a strange sensation across her abdomen. What the hell did we do? she questioned herself.

She thought there was something oddly familiar about the chest and even the masculine scent. Her mind started sending her fragments of the previous night as she carefully raised her head and looked at her bed partner.

The screech that left her lips at seeing Walter Skinner next to her was repeated as the sound echoed through her head. She started swearing and stopped as that also echoed. Her head throbbed even more as she jerked away from him and rolled back to her side of the bed.

Walt arched an evil eyebrow as he spoke to her louder than necessary. "A little hung over, are we?"

"Uuhhoohh," she groaned as she held her head in her hands. "Don't shout," she whispered.

He sat up and looked at her consideringly. She looked like hell -- eyes bloodshot, day-old make-up smeared every which way, hair disheveled. He felt no sympathy for her at all as he thought about making up events about the night before to teach her a lesson. And if she didn't respond to his verbal reprimands, he was prepared to try something else. He hoped he wouldn't have to.

"Funny, that's similar to what the occupants on either side of our room said," he said, much more cheerily than he felt.

Allison looked at him through slitted eyes. "Stop shouting."

He leaned closer to her. "That wasn't shouting." He raised his voice cruelly. "This is!"

"UUUHHH!!" Allison rolled in a ball as she held her head tighter waiting for the reverberations to stop. When they eased up, she whimpered and faintly responded. "You are a horrible, rotten, cruel person."

"You certainly have changed your tune. Before, you were calling out my name in ecstasy over and over."

"Give it a rest. I passed out. Screw the lecture."

alt="Anthony Book I wish you hadn't said that, he thought. Walt started to snake his hand under the shirt she was wearing and she slapped it away. The sound of the slap made her clutch her head again. "Sorry to deliver the bad news, but you didn't pass out."

He placed his hand on her thigh instead and began kneading the flesh. Allison was in too much pain to care this time. "In fact," he said as he moved his hand moved further up and back under the shirt, "I daresay what we did is illegal in most states."

She slapped at his arm, but he wouldn't stop groping her, pushing the shirt up further, exposing her stomach and the scratches from the keys.

"No. Don't. Walt, pleeaase don't." Her head felt like an entire marching band was inside and she had little strength to do anything, certainly not fight someone as powerful as Walt. He was someone she trusted, but he appeared to be trying to force himself on her and she started crying at the thought. "Pleeaase," she begged again as he pulled her arms above her head and held them there with one hand, this time keeping them there.

Walt saw the beginning of fear in her eyes, but it was too soon. If he was going to illustrate what could have happened to her, he had to go further before he could stop. With a forced dark and sinister tone to his voice, he whispered at her. "We did what you wanted already... now it's my turn. And I guarantee it's illegal in all the states and most countries. You wanted me to hurt you last night, now you're going to get your wish."

He couldn't bring himself to say anything else as he finished unbuttoning the shirt and was afraid to look into her eyes. He lowered his mouth to her throat instead and forced himself to suckle the flesh harshly while his hand rubbed her breast brusquely. He let most of his weight fall on her as she whimpered and sobbed beneath him.

The lesson only lasted about six seconds and Walt was about to stop when she started making gagging noises. In a flash he had her up and in the bathroom, barely getting her to the toilet in time. He felt his heart go out to her as she retched for what seemed like forever.

When at length she stopped, he had a cool, wet washcloth ready for her. As he touched her shoulder, she jerked away from him, terror in her eyes. "Don't touch me or I'll scream." She clutched at the open shirt and pulled it protectively around her.

Walt knelt in front of her, eyes sincere with regret. "Allison," he began, his deep baritone soothing, "I would never hurt you... certainly never rape you... you know that. But Parker or Vance might not have stopped. If something had happened, what would the kids and I do without you?"

She blinked several times, trying to absorb his words and make sense of them. "Oh, Walt," she wailed and fell into his arms, wracking sobs flooding her body. He held her tightly, tenderly caressing her back with one hand while he rocked her.

She pulled away from him suddenly and hugged the toilet some more.

He carefully wiped her face with the washcloth afterward before softly stroking her cheek. "I'm sorry about this morning. It was the only way I could make you truly understand the danger you could have faced." He smiled slightly and cupped her chin. "You missed a really good speech on the evils of alcohol." Allison smiled a little as he started to get up. "Why don't you take a shower? You're a mess right now." She continued to clutch his hand after he helped her up -- he brought it to his lips and softly kissed it. "I'll be right outside if you need me."

Allison stood under the shower's warm water a long time... thinking, regretting. Unlike some drunks, she remembered what she did while drinking. Most of the time the worst she'd done had been mildly embarrassing things, and even then, behind closed doors. Last night had definitely taken the cake.

If Brett hadn't stumbled upon her... she shook just imagining and cried some more. Walt was right. Parker and Vance could have turned out to be psychotic killers.

She cringed yet again, recalling how she'd seduced Walt, how she'd thrown herself at him and made a complete ass of herself. She wasn't sure which made her feel more guilty, the comment about Clare or making it before he had climaxed.

Allison felt another wave of nausea and closed her eyes, knowing there was nothing left in her stomach to throw up, and the feeling passed. I'd better make an appointment with my doctor, she thought, this bug has gone on long enough -- or maybe it's the hangover, hell, I don't know.

She sighed and finally turned the water off. The warmth of it had helped her shoulder a little, but had stung the scratches for a while. She didn't want to put the smoke-infested dress back on, but what other choice did she have?

Allison discovered another as she pulled back the shower curtain and saw fresh clothes neatly folded on the vanity. More to the point, they were her clothes. There was also a comb, and other necessary toiletries. She shook her head carefully, mindful of the throbbing pain still. Few people would have had the presence of mind to bring all of it. But then, Walt wasn't at all like the rank and file.

She exited a few minutes later, feeling more awkward in front of him fully clothed and under a bulky sweater than she had with the shirt dangling open. "Thanks for the clothes," she mumbled.

He smiled and walked over to her, enveloping her in his powerful arms before kissing her wet hair. "I'd like to take credit, but it was Teresa's idea."

Walt felt her stiffen in his arms and released her, looking into her troubled eyes with concern and compassion. He tilted her chin, "Allison, nothing happened," he attempted to lie.

She took his hand and softly kissed the palm. "Don't bother lying, Walt. I remember everything that happened. I'm not sore, but I still know."

He turned away with a frown. "I should have been gentler. Hell, I shouldn't have done it at all. I should have had enough control to resist."

Allison walked around him and stroked his cheek. "I know how amorous I am when I'm drunk... though I've never out and out thrown myself at anybody like I..." She frowned herself and bit her lip. "As far as 'gentler' goes, I didn't want that," she said, cringing as she remembered her comment, "and I said as much. I do trust you, but I'm still glad you were using a condom. If for no other reason than to protect you from this stupid bug I seem to have picked up."

"I still might get that from the kisses, you know," he mused with a sly smile.

She dropped her hand and sat on the bed. "True... God, I must have had 10, 11 drinks. It's a wonder I didn't pass out in the bar." She rubbed her head delicately. "Of course, I'm paying for it now."

He left the room and came back with a glass of water and several aspirin. She took them both and kissed his hand again. "You make a very good mom, Walt."

Walt leaned her head onto his shoulder and twined his fingers around hers. "Just what I always wanted to hear," he quipped before turning serious. "I care about you very much, Allison... I really don't know what I'd do without you, without our friendship. And despite last night," she started to raise her head, "I don't want anything to change between us."

"It already has... you know that. Whether either of us cares to admit it, subconsciously we're attracted to each other, and the alcohol just brought it out."

"Don't go down that road," he murmured as he squeezed her hand. "I know this sounds uncomplimentary to both of us, but last night you would have gone for any guy. I will admit, though, that you were exuding a hell of a lot of raw sensuality -- and that's what attracted me."

Neither was sure they was willing to believe the words, but it was certainly safer to do so to maintain the friendship. "There's an easy way to find out," Allison whispered as she placed her hand on his groin and slowly rubbed. "Let me take care of last night's unfinished business."

He removed her hand decisively and looked into her bloodshot eyes. "No. Don't make things worse."

"But it's only fair, Walt. If I hadn't made that stupid comment -- and I'm truly sorry that I did -- you wouldn't have stopped and... and you would have been satisfied."

He arched an eyebrow. "Allison, I would have stopped when you lost consciousness." He smiled a trifle slyly. "Though your comment did keep me from spending twice as much time under a cold shower."

She couldn't stop herself from chuckling, even if her head didn't appreciate it. His voice went serious again. "If you really think we should test the waters sober, a simple kiss should do the trick."

Allison lowered her head and pursed her lips. "Despite toothpaste and mouthwash, I still have a horrendous case of cottonmouth." He squeezed her hand again and she laid her head back on his shoulder. "We should go. I'm sure the kids are driving Teresa nuts with questions."

They slowly stood and held onto each other for a few long seconds, not knowing what else to do.

"I'm really glad Basil insisted you get the towing hitch on the van," Walt announced for little apparent reason. Allison leaned back and gazed into his kind eyes a moment before breaking away and starting to gather up their belongings.

Walt gently pulled her back to him. "Allison... Basil was a very lucky man."

She brought her opposite hand to his face and trailed her fingers along his jaw. "And Clare was a very lucky woman."

About Noon

Walt pulled the van into the driveway and glanced at Allison asleep on the shorter, middle backseat. She was curled on her side, sunglasses in place to shield her still-sensitive eyes from the sun.

He was halfway through unhitching his car when Teresa came out with Ian in tow. "How is she?"

Walt smiled as Ian called him 'dada' again and then reached for him with a blinding smile of happiness. "Still trying to sleep it off."

"No, I'm not," Allison mumbled as she climbed out of the van. She blinked several times before carefully stretching as Ian smiled again and toddled to her. She slowly knelt to hug him. "Where are the other kids?"

"I asked them to wait till you came in," Teresa replied. Allison looked toward the French doors and saw all four faces peering out with varying expressions of concern. Trevor's face registered relief as he cautiously opened the door and Anthony came out onto the porch with him. "I told them you'd explain everything when you got home, like you requested."

Allison took a deep breath as she finished speaking and Walt squeezed her hand for support. The kids were lined up in a row on the opposite sofa in the drawing room. Charlee and Amelia didn't quite understand what had been explained to them and their expressions reflected that... while Trevor and Anthony understood too well.

The girls slid off the sofa and walked around the coffee table. Charlee climbed up next to Allison while Amelia leaned against Walt's leg and waited for him to pick her up. They both took Allison's hands and looked at her with huge, worried eyes. "Are you feeling better now, Mommy?"

Allison leaned toward Amelia's head and kissed it softly. "Yes, honey, I am." No need to tell the child the headache from hell was still present, she thought, and hoped she wouldn't have to bolt for the bathroom any time soon.

"Are you going to drink anymore?" Charlee's voice had a palpable tone of reprimand.

"No, Charlee," and Allison looked toward Walt briefly, "I've learned my lesson."

"Do you have any more questions?" Walt directed his to the girls -- they both shook their heads. "Would you help Gramma set the table then? We'll be along in a few minutes."

Allison ducked her head to kiss Charlee while Amelia gave Walt a kiss. They both left as Walt thought how much more affectionate Amelia was toward him than Charlee. He realized it wasn't just Ian who thought of him as 'Dad.' He was also startled to realize that he thought of all of them as his children.

"Mom?" Trevor cautiously asked. "Why did you drive to Philadelphia? I mean, if you were unhappy, why didn't you come home? We would have cheered you up. You didn't have to drink."

Allison wished she could disappear... facing her son's question, even though it was delivered without rebuff, was difficult. She'd let him down, let them all down. "I didn't leave the house with the intention of driving to Philly, Trev. I just felt so... so... empty, I guess. I felt like I needed to do something wild and reckless -- and drinking was the answer."

"But you said drinking didn't solve anything, that it affects your judgment and actions. What if something had happened to you?" Allison felt steadily more ashamed as Trevor started to tear up. "What about us? Don't you care what happens to us? Don't you love us enough to... to..."

Allison couldn't take anymore as Trevor gave in to his tears. She got up and wrapped her arms around him, crying with him as she kissed his head. "I love you, Charlee, Amelia, Ian and Anthony more than anything else in the world. And I always will."

She blinked as she realized she'd included Anthony in the list of her own children. She looked toward him in surprise at the absence of confusion on his face. "Trev, I'm very, very sorry. I..." She looked deeply into his troubled eyes and didn't know what to say.

"Trev, your mom isn't perfect; she comes pretty close," Walt began, and Allison peered back at him through her hair and tears with a smile, "but she still makes the occasional mistake. We all do -- and some mistakes are bigger than others." Trevor sniffled again and looked at Walt, who was sitting on the edge of the sofa, elbows on his knees and palms together. "But your mom won't be making this particular one again." I won't let her, he thought.

Trevor sniffled again and looked at Allison. "Promise, Mom?"

She smiled once more and enveloped him in another hug. "I promise, honey."

Walt was surprised Anthony wasn't firing him mental questions about being included in Allison's list. Maybe that meant Anthony really did feel as though he were part of the family. And was that really so bad? He himself knew Allison was creeping further into his heart -- and after last night, despite his words of the morning after of wanting nothing to change between them, he knew Allison was right about the change already occurring.

"Come on, Trev," Anthony urged as he got up, "Let's go eat before it gets cold." He flashed a warm smile to both Allison and Walt before he and Trevor left.

Allison remained half on the sofa, half on the floor after they left, feeling too drained and weak to move. Having only managed to get a small piece of toast down that morning, plus another couple of mints, and eating next to nothing the previous night, her body had run out of energy. She felt Walt's gentle, strong arms pulling her up, supporting her, slowly turning her around till her head was resting on his shoulder.

Walt closed his eyes as she leaned against him and let the last of her tears out. He carefully tightened his hold of her and slid one hand under the sweater to rub her back. She raised her head and gazed at him through her bloodshot eyes as he compassionately smiled. He brushed the tears away from her cheeks and felt something stir within him.

Allison reached up to stroke his cheek as their eyes locked. She felt irresistibly drawn to him. Walt slowly elevated her chin, watching her eyes for any sign of discomfort, unwillingness. He lowered his lips to hers and kissed her warmly... but the connection wasn't there; they both realized it instantly.

Teresa held her breath from her vantage point in the hall and was disappointed when the kiss all too briefly ended and they simply held each other a few seconds more. She cleared her throat and entered the room, more disappointed that neither looked guilty at nearly being caught in an ardent embrace. "The tomato soup and toasted cheese sandwiches are getting cold."

Allison smiled. "I hope my stomach is ready for food, because I'm starving." She grimaced as she thought about the menu. "Though I don't think I'm ready for either of those yet."

She and Walt started to move past Teresa, but Teresa put a hand on Walt's arm. "Could I speak to you a moment, Walt?" He raised his eyebrows in question and she smiled. "I promise to make you a fresh sandwich when we're done."

Allison reluctantly left, not wanting to try to imagine the topic of the conversation. She knew she'd be in for a stern talking-to later. She made a beeline for the second floor, not wanting to let any more time go by before she took her birth control pill.

"What exactly happened last night?" Teresa inquired.

Walt felt the scrutiny and effortlessly switched into work mode, the one that had him avoiding direct questions. "I already told you on the phone."

Teresa was not about to be put off that easily. "Then tell me again."

He pursed his lips and knew he was narrowing his eyes, picking up on the implication. "I found her at the bar, persuaded her to leave with me, checked into a motel and she passed out."

"And why am I sure that you're leaving out quite a bit of information?"

He narrowed his eyes more. "I don't know what you mean."

"Get off it, Walt. Did you or didn't you sleep with Allison?"

Even with her voice low, she'd managed to pack a lot into her tone. And he was equally good with his response. "Since we were both asleep at the same time, in the same bed, then yes, we 'slept' together."

She looked at him with a mix of respect and annoyance before walking closer and holding his chin between her thumb and index finger. For a woman her age, she had a pretty good grip, he realized. "Did the two of you have sexual relations?"

He politely removed her hand and eliminated all tone from his voice. "That is none of your business. And whether or not you think of Allison as your daughter, you should know better than to ask."

Teresa turned briefly away for a moment. "Are you gay, Mr. Skinner?" She turned back to him with a gleam in her eyes.

He arched an eyebrow and barely kept the irritation from his voice. "No."

She sighed with exaggeration and fluffed a throw pillow. "Well then, you must have ice water in your veins, because I'm aware of how alcohol affects Allison, and I fail to see how you could have resisted her otherwise."

alt="Anthony Book Oh, you're good, he thought, but not good enough. "I don't think of Allison that way and she knows it. Nothing happened."

Nice try, she thought, as she watched his shoulders slump ever so slightly. "You've been thinking of her that way ever since you bought that revealing dress for her. The two of you are too stubborn, too blind or too stupid to realize that you're no longer just friends."

He started to open his mouth, but felt at a loss. "That's right, think about it and maybe you'll finally admit it." She walked back to him and took his hand. "The two of you are good for each other. I know she loved Basil and he loved her, too, but he tended to treat her like a sex object. If Basil hadn't screwed around and gotten caught, their marriage would have still fizzled out; it simply would have taken more time." She tugged on his hand to get him to look in her eyes. "You and Allison could have something wonderful if the two of you would let it happen."

Walt swallowed, even though his mouth was dry. If he'd just begun noticing the change in his feelings, how could Teresa have picked up on them? Was he being that obvious? No, he answered himself, if he were, Anthony would have picked up on it. "I appreciate your concern, Teresa, but you're wrong." He wasn't going to acknowledge anything until he'd worked it out in his mind. "We're friends, nothing more. Now, if you'll excuse me..."

Teresa watched him walk out of the room and thought he was too damned skillful at burying his feelings for his own good. I'll just have to work on Allison, she thought with a smile... I'll get you two together yet.

Just Under an Hour Later

Allison waved to the kids as Walt backed the van down the driveway. They were going to a matinée showing of Disney's latest release and Allison felt rotten about staying home -- of course, listening to surround sound would have been almost suicidal with her headache.

She wandered back in from the porch and hoped the weather would warm up for the end of the week and all the Halloween trick or treaters. A Friday Halloween meant three days of ghosts and goblins coming to the door. She made a mental note to buy extra candy.

"I should work on the kids' costumes," she murmured out loud as she poured herself another cup of coffee. Then she thought about the noise the sewing machine would make. "On the other hand, being a lazy butt has its appeal," she said aloud.

She'd no sooner started to walk toward the dining room when her stomach flipped and she ran for the bathroom. Several minutes later, she resumed her walk and curled her legs under her as she sat on one sofa, mindful of her full mug.

Antique or not, the furniture was lovingly dinged from numerous ancestors and the upholstery had been changed four times to suit the whims of the owner at the time... and to remove the stains that wouldn't come out. She smiled, remembering how her mother had said she didn't care what the fabric color or pattern was, as long as it could be made stain-resistant. Which is good, in case I toss my cookies right here, she thought as she placed her mug on the coffee table. Allison ran her hand across the material, thinking that the blissful sounds of silence were also lonely as Teresa entered from the hall.

"You really don't need to baby-sit me, Teresa. I'm not going to try to drink my hangover away."

Teresa sat opposite Allison on the other sofa. "Well, I'm relieved to hear that. How bad off are you still?"

"From the flu or the hangover?"


"Enough not to want to listen to a lecture, thank you."

"Well, you're going to get one anyway, young lady." Teresa shook her head with disappointment. "Of all the people I know, you are the last one I would have picked to go off and feel the need to prove to yourself that you're marketable."

Allison arched an eyebrow in response. "Marketable?"

"You know what I mean, that the opposite sex still finds you attractive, that you're still capable of being noticed."

Allison rubbed her upper arms absently. "Is that what you think I was doing? Having a mid-life crisis because my marriage was officially over?"

"If not that, then what? You told me how amorous you get when you've had five or six drinks. And considering you've got some persistent bug, it was especially stupid to get sauced. If you weren't looking for a one-night stand, why did you go to Philly?"

Allison rubbed her hand across her forehead. "Because it was an old habit I thought I was free of. Have a problem, go to the Lamplighter for a few quick ones. Celebrate something, go to the Lamplighter. Basil and I spent a fair amount of time there; I don't know, maybe I was trying to rekindle a memory."

"And as you were rekindling, you could have gone off with a guy who could have murdered you."

Allison covered her face with her hands before massaging her temples. "I know, I know. Walt already went over all that. I'll tell you the same thing we told the kids. I've learned my lesson and I'm not going to do it again. Okay, 'Mom'?"

Teresa allowed a small smile to cross her lips. "I sincerely hope not, 'daughter.' All right, now that I've covered the lecture, when are you going to tell Walt how you really feel about him?"

Allison loudly sighed with exasperation. "What are you talking about now?"

"The two of you have been pussy-footing around your feelings since July. Now that you've finally slept together, don't you think you should admit that you're at least falling in love with him?"

Allison started to speak a few times before releasing her breath and covering her mouth. Her reaction told Teresa that they had, in fact, slept together.

"I'm not falling in love with him. I will admit that I do love him as a very close friend, but it's not romantic. And as far as sleeping with him goes, sharing a bed is a far cry from exchanging bodily fluids."

Teresa looked perturbed as it appeared that Allison wasn't so bad off as to acknowledge what she was still certain had happened. Allison chewed her lip.

"Well, if you didn't have sexual relations with him last night, when are you planning to get around to it?"

Allison's expression changed to surprise as she stood up and walked to the piano. "I just got divorced, for crying out loud, Teresa, why would I want to jump into a relationship?"

"You're already in this relationship. And from a technical standpoint, you've been separated from Basil for nearly seven months." She got up and walked over to her, softening her tone. "I want to see you happy, Allison; and you and Walt do that for each other. But without a kick in the pants, I doubt that the two of you will see it."

"But... but I just don't see him that way."

Teresa took Allison's jaw in her hand and looked into her eyes. "Then maybe you both have ice water in your veins and you need to get your eyes checked. The man has outstanding broad shoulders, a gorgeous chest, a trim waist, a tight set of buns and I'm sure none of his previous bed partners have voiced any complaints." Allison removed her hand and turned away. "He also has sensitive eyes, a warm smile, a lovely baritone voice, a generous heart and cares about you and the children." Allison still remained silent as Teresa walked in front of her again. "If you don't snap him up, some other very lucky woman will... and if I were about 20, no, 15 years younger I'd be all over him like white on rice."

Allison finally responded to this last comment. "You need to get out more, 'Yenta.'" Allison sighed again and dragged her fingers through her hair, a tingling sensation in her fingertips. "The kids have been through so much, asking them to accept Walt as my 'boyfriend' would only confuse them more. And what if didn't work out? What if--"

Teresa cut her off, "And what if it does? He's wonderful with the kids -- Ian already thinks he is his father and Amelia's not far behind, Trev thinks of him as a favorite uncle. Charlee's the only holdout."

Allison was pensive a few moments. "Basil spent a lot of time with her -- she's his favorite, even if we both claim not to have any. She's afraid of him and misses him at the same time."

She looked blankly into space awhile. "I don't know. Charlee will have a hard time with anyone I get involved with. I should make sure she's adjusted before I introduce new variables. And then there's Anthony. I don't want him to think of me as a replacement for Clare. He still looks at me sometimes and sees his mother, I'm sure of it. He's bound to have a problem with the first woman Walt gets involved with."

"Anthony adores you and he's certainly intelligent enough to know that you wouldn't try to take Clare's place." She raised Allison's chin again. "You'll never know what you're missing if you don't try."

About 5:30p.m.

The kids came running into the kitchen, hooting and hollering, all carrying a bag. They each stopped long enough to give a shell-shocked Allison a kiss before proceeding on their way -- except for Ian, who hovered in the kitchen mooching for cookies. Walt followed after them with an apologetic smile. "How's the head?"

Allison screwed her eyes shut before replying. "It wasn't bad before the herd of elephants came stampeding through. What were they all carrying?"

He leaned against the opposite side of the island after tossing his jacket onto a chair. "We stopped at a toy store at the mall and I bought them each something." Ian came back over to Allison and handed her his bag; she put it on the island and handed him a cookie.

"They'll love you forever if you..." Somehow the playful words didn't sound right after the previous night. She swallowed and changed the subject, drumming her fingers against the counter. "Are you staying tonight?"

Walt felt a pang of disappointment when she changed the subject. It meant their carefree banter wasn't going to be so easy anymore, at least not for a while. "We can if you want us to. I've got at least one clean dress shirt still here."

Allison wasn't sure if she wanted them to stay or not; she wasn't sure what she wanted, period. The house always seemed emptier when they weren't there, but they did have a home of their own and she didn't have the right to impose her wishes.

"It's up to you, I'm not going to tell you what to do." She opened Ian's bag and removed a little school bus, feeling a momentary cramp of pain surge through her stomach as she bent to hand it to him. She managed not to gasp as her son happily took it from her and sat on the floor to play with it. The pain subsided.

Walt saw it, though. He walked around the island. "What's wrong? Did Teresa say something? Was she spouting her idea that we're the perfect couple to you, too?" Allison turned her head away trying to unscramble the various thoughts running through her head. "Allison?"

"What if she's right, Walt? What if we have been suppressing our feelings for each other since July? I... I'm not sure how to proceed. I've never started out with a friendship and had it change to a sexual relationship; they've all been the other way around."

Walt almost denied his own uncertainties, almost fell into his own old habit of stonewalling his feelings -- but didn't.

"I've done it once; right after my tour in Vietnam... and it didn't work." Walt leaned against the island and recited the rest of the story with a far-off look in his eyes. "It was late spring, before I went back to college. I was in an independent phase and had moved out of my parents' house. Michele worked at a local grocery store and we struck up a friendship over a few weeks. We were inseparable for months just hanging out, seeing cheap movies 'cause that's all either of us could afford. She had a dream of becoming an architect, even studying in Paris. We moved in together to cut expenses, but the relationship was strictly platonic."

"What happened to change that?" Allison softly asked as she held his hand and incongruously started drumming her fingers again.

"Drugs... marijuana, actually. We were at a party of a friend of a friend's and we got high. We, uh, lost our inhibitions. After that, we slept together on and off for about a month, but it wasn't any good -- emotionally, the connection wasn't there. She decided to move out to California and live with her sister, and the friendship just fizzled out."

Walt stared at the refrigerator for several seconds. "I saw her about nine years ago when I was temporarily assigned to the San Diego office for a, uh, case. She'd gotten married, become an architect, had had three kids and seemed very happy."

He paused again as he focused his attention back on the present, aided by Ian's crashing of the toy bus into his foot. "Michele always knew what she wanted. And there I was, 37, no wife or kids, no girlfriend, nose to the grindstone, pretty much a loner. I was climbing the FBI ladder and my professional life was soaring, but I didn't have anyone to share it with."

Allison tilted his downturned chin back up and looked in his eyes. "Until Clare."

Walt stifled the urge to laugh, remembering the words that the Member of the Consortium had said to him in the cemetery in front of Clare's grave about not having her, or Anthony, at all if 'they' hadn't interfered with his life.

"Until Clare," he repeated. "She filled an emptiness in my life and made me feel whole... The first time I lost her, I felt twice as empty... didn't think I could ever feel whole again, maybe that I somehow didn't deserve to be that happy again. When I found out she was alive, that we had a son, it was like my life was starting over, I was so..."

He blinked a few times and was quiet for a short while. "I don't want to live the rest of my life feeling that same emptiness -- and I don't want Anthony to grow up without a mother." He smiled sadly. "Clare made me promise to look for someone..."

Walt moved in front of Allison, loosely wrapped one arm around her and gently stroked her cheek. "I feel every bit as nervous about changing our relationship as you do, but... but I realize now I haven't felt that emptiness since July and..."

Allison reached up to trail her fingers along his jaw. "And if there's a chance that we could have a life together, you're willing to take the risk." He nodded, kissing her hand before she turned her head. "I just don't know. My marriage wasn't perfect, but... I just don't think I'm ready to start a new relationship." She laughed slightly as she turned back to him. "Or change an old one. It just feels too soon. And I'm afraid how the kids will react, that it'll be too hard for them to understand with everything that's happened." She trailed her fingers again along his skin. "I do love you, but not the way you need to be loved, not now." Allison saw a flicker of hope in his eyes.

"I feel the same way, Allison, honestly I do. I don't want to rush into anything, make any rash moves that could jeopardize our friendship. We both need time to adjust to this, get used to the idea of being a couple." He held her chin gently in his hand. "As much as I may not want to admit it, I think Teresa's right. We could have something wonderful together, in time."

They stared into each other's eyes as they both felt that pull again. Very slowly, they leaned toward each other, both remembering the absence of the connection earlier. Their lips gently brushed together before gaining pressure. They both felt it, that very faint tingling sensation that intensified.

The kiss went on for what seemed like forever before they broke apart and rested their foreheads together, each taking a deep breath. "If we keep doing that, it won't take long at all," Allison murmured with a smile.

Walt smiled back with a wonderfully warm feeling of satisfaction. "No, I don't think it will, but let's agree right now to take this slow. And not do anything overtly affectionate in front of the older kids till we at least know where we are." Of course, keeping it from Anthony might not be possible, he thought.

"Agreed. Now which would you rather to solidify this agreement? A handshake, or another kiss?" He declined to give his answer verbally as Ian banged into his foot again.

Anthony and Trevor backed away quietly from the kitchen doorway and returned upstairs. They passed the girls at the top of the stairs in silence.

"I can't believe your dad was kissing my mum," Trevor sputtered with wide eyes, still incredulous at what he'd seen. "And in front of Icky."

Anthony sat on the lower bunk with Trevor and resisted the urge to try to read either Walt's or Allison's thoughts -- he was happy. It was still a bit weird to think of Aunt Allison as his new mom, though.

Trevor was still mumbling as Anthony looked at him. "Would you shut up already? I was there, I saw it. What's so bad about your mom and my dad?"

"I don't know. They just shouldn't be doing that. I mean what if they have sex and have a baby like my dad and that lady?"

Anthony fixed Trevor with a patronizing gaze. "My dad won't do that until they're married."

Trevor stared back at him, affronted. "Why not? Mom said adults get these -- what word did she use? Oh, yeah, 'urges' and they have sex. What makes you think your dad doesn't have urges?"

"Maybe he does, but he can keep them under control better than your dad."

The rest of the 'discussion' deteriorated into name-calling before proceeding to a no-holds-barred wrestling match. After about a minute of scuffling and shouting, both Allison and Walt came charging into the room. Walt pulled a thrashing Anthony off Trevor and Allison kept hold of Trevor's arm as he tried to go after Anthony again. "Enough! " Walt shouted before looking at Allison's wince and apologizing to her. "Sorry. What are you fighting about?"

Almost in sync, the two spoke. "Trevor said you can't control your urges." "Anthony said you're better than my dad."

Allison and Walt exchanged looks as the girls peeked around the corner. "Charlee, Amelia, go back downstairs and watch Ian," Allison ordered. They both started to protest. "I said move." They ducked out at their mother's tone and Allison winced as it replayed in her head a few times. Both parents let go of their son.

"What are the two of you talking about?"

They both looked at Walt, but it was Trevor who burst out with his comments. "You're gonna have sex with Mom and have babies 'cause of your urges."

Allison and Walt blinked before looking at each other with stunned expressions. "Uh, would you like to take this one, Walt?"

Walt didn't take his gaze off the boys. "Where did you get that idea?"

"From what you said in the kitchen and what Mom told me before about sex." Both adults dropped their heads, mutually realizing that exploring their changing feelings had just become much more difficult. "You said you loved each other and Mom said when two people love each other, they have sex and babies 'cause of their urges."

Walt raised his head and glanced at Allison. "I'd say this is your question."

She smirked at him and took Trevor's hand. "Trev, honey, it isn't as simple as that. You misunderstood what we said in the kitchen. We don't love each other that way, we love each other as friends."

"But Uncle Walt said he slept with that lady and she was his friend."

Allison shot Walt a look that plainly bounced the ball back into his court. "Yes, I said that, Trev, but I also said we did because we were under the influence of drugs," Walt said in the most reasonable tone he could muster. "Drugs are a lot like alcohol; they can make you do things that you wouldn't ordinarily do -- things that you shouldn't do."

"So you and Mom aren't going to have sex unless you're drinking or doing drugs?"

Both adults blinked again and stared at each other. Allison slowly answered," If we decide that we love each other that way, then whether or not we choose to have sex is our business. But we plan to take our time to determine how we feel."

Allison's head jerked toward the door when she heard Ian crying with more than his usual fervor. "I'll go see what happened."

Walt came down a few minutes later, shaking his head and feeling his own tension headache. "Seven-and-a-half and eight-and-a-half," he muttered to himself. "What kind of questions are they going to come up with when they're teenagers?" He entered the kitchen and found the rest of the family. "Is Ian all right?" He barely had time to utter the words before Ian ran to him to be picked up.

"Fine. That was his new frustration cry. He was trying to climb on the sofa and couldn't get his leg up high enough."

Amelia came over to Walt, wrapped her arm around his leg and looked up at him with those sweet, green eyes. "Are you going to be our new daddy, Uncle Walt?"

"Amelia Teresa! That's not what I said." Allison rubbed her head again and pretty much decided she wasn't ever going to be free of the headache. Charlee gave Walt a look of fury and stomped out of the room. "Charrleeee," Allison called as she started to go after her.

Walt put Ian down and caught her hand. "I'll talk to her. I'm assuming you told the girls without mentioning 's-e-x'?" Allison nodded and felt that now too-familiar sensation of nausea. Walt saw the flash of green cross her face. "When you feel a bit better, Anthony would like to talk to you." She nodded again quickly and ran for the bathroom.

Walt found Charlee in the drawing room, sitting on the piano bench. She exaggerated her pout when she saw him approaching. "I don't wanna talk to you. First Daddy left and now you're trying to take Mommy away. I don't like you."

He wanted to hold her in his arms and hug her fears away, but he didn't think it wise to try that just yet. "I'm sorry you feel that way, Charlee." He sat next to her and wasn't surprised when she moved to the other end of the bench -- at least she wasn't leaving entirely, he thought.

"I would never take Allison away from you. Not you, Amelia, Ian or Trevor. Your mom and I care a great deal about each other, and especially about all of you. We don't want to do anything that would upset or hurt you."

"That's what Daddy said and he moved far away and I can't see him anymore. He doesn't love me anymore and..." She started to sniffle as she teared up, "and I don't love him."

Walt hung his head and cautiously stroked her hair. She leaned away from him at first before slowly inching her way back and cuddling next to him. "Is that why you didn't want to see him on Wednesday?"

She pouted again as she nodded, "Does that make me bad?"

He pulled her onto his lap and gazed into her expressive gray eyes with tremendous compassion. "No, sweetheart, it doesn't. Having your parents get divorced is very confusing and scary." Walt tenderly stroked her cheek. "But it helps if you talk about how you feel. You're a lot like me, you keep your feelings bottled up inside." He smiled warmly at her.

Charlee snuggled against his big, strong chest and sighed as he wrapped an arm around her. "And that's not good?"

Walt gently rubbed her arm, thinking she was carrying the weight of the world on her six-year-old shoulders. He leaned down and kissed her head. "It's better if you let your feelings out, talk to Mommy or Gramma... or me."

She struggled against crying some more before giving in. "I miss Daddy an awful lot. He always made time for me, just me... and when he left for England I felt sort of aben, aban--"


Charlee slowly nodded. "Why didn't Daddy want us with him? Why didn't he want me?"

Walt sighed, knowing that the hows and whys had been explained to the kids. But neither he nor Allison had suspected that Charlee was so unhappy. God, he thought, she really is like me, too good at internalizing. He gently pulled her away from his chest and dried some of her tears.

"Charlee, your father loves you very much and he definitely wants and misses you."

He enveloped her little hand in his own strong one. "Being a parent isn't easy, honey; we don't always make the right decision, even when we're trying to look out for your best interests. That's another reason why it's important that you tell us what you're feeling, because we don't always pick up on it right away." And I feel like I've taken a crash course in parenting, he silently added.

She looked at him again with a penetrating stare. "What will happen to us if you and Mommy don't, uh, get along?"

Walt felt his heart melt; weight of the world, insecure, unhappy -- no little girl should feel this way, he thought. "We do get along, sweetheart, but if we decide that we wouldn't be happy as a couple, we'll still be friends -- Anthony and I will still be around. But whatever happens, you can always talk to me, Charlee, I'll always listen to you... no matter what.

Charlee blinked a few times and wrapped her arms around his neck with a shy smile. "Will you take me for ice cream, too?"

He laughed, eyes crinkling. "Absolutely, sweetheart. Even if it's only as far as the kitchen."

She smiled back with a dazzling brilliance, something she rarely did, and kissed his cheek. "I really do like you, Uncle Walt."

Walt beamed at her as he set her on the floor and took her hand again. "And I really like you, too, Charlee." He squatted in front of her, "How about some of that ice cream?"

She pouted a little. "Mommy will say it's too close to dinner time."

He winked at her and squeezed her hand. "She's probably right, but I don't think she'll mind just this once." Charlee wrapped her arms around his neck again and he carried her to the kitchen.

10 Minutes Previous

Anthony followed Walt out of Trevor's room and went into the guest room. He sat on the bed and thought about how happy his mother would be once everything was settled. And he realized that for all intents and purposes, she'd gotten everything right. And he remembered a memory of his own.

+ + + + + +

Sunday, October 13, 1996, 4:30p.m.
Rock Creek State Park, Iowa

Anthony watched Walt carry the picnic basket back to the car. "Why don't we take a little walk, Sweetpea?"

He turned to Clare questioningly. "What about Dad?"

She smiled at him and held out her hand. "We won't be long, and he'll be here when we get back." He took her hand and allowed her to lead him toward the lake. Clare gazed out to the water and took a deep breath before she started.

"Sweetpea, I love you and your father very, very much and he feels the exact same way. I want the two of you to be happy... after I'm gone. You know how happy you are when you're playing with Timmy and Billy and their brothers and sisters?" he nodded with big eyes. "Well, your father and I had planned on having a big family," she said, gently caressing his chin as she squatted to look at him in the eye. "You weren't meant to be an only child, Anthony... and you still don't have to be. I would very much like for your father to remarry... after."

He swallowed slowly. "How soon after?"

She looked toward Walt as he waited by the car, then back at Anthony. "Your dad will know when it's right. It's important to both of us that you have a mother."

"But you're my mother."

"I know, Sweetpea, but you can have more than one. And after I'm gone, I'd like for you to have another one."

He stared at his feet a moment, thinking. "So will I have to call her 'Mom'?"

She smiled at him again. "I'm sure whoever your father chooses will allow you to call her anything you're comfortable with."

"Will I have to love her?"

Clare squeezed his hand and pulled him closer to her. "That's up to you. Your opinion will be very important to your dad. I'm sure the woman who comes into both your lives will be wonderful, caring, loving and able to make both of you smile."

Anthony smiled at the comment. "Sweetpea, I'm telling you this because I don't want you to feel jealous when your father starts to see someone. He will never try to replace me, but he needs to be loved."

Anthony shuffled his feet and looked back at Walt before staring into Clare's eyes. "Isn't my love enough?"

She gazed into his pensive eyes. "As strong as the bond of love is between you, it's not the same. There are so many different kinds of love, honey. There's the love between a parent and child and that's very, very special. Then there's the love between siblings, and between husband and wife and between friends, and so many more. Death can't break the bond of love, but your father will need a more tangible kind in time."

"So Dad won't stop loving you if he falls in love with another woman?"

"No, Sweetpea. Your dad and I will always love each other. We'll have a... a combination of a tangible and an intangible love. It'll still be real and strong, but without the ability to touch, to really see and hear each other, it will be ethereal, unfulfilling. Sometime after the pain goes away, he'll need more than that... you both will."

He shuffled some more, "How will he know she's the one? How will they meet? Will she love me?"

Clare's eyes grew moist. "I don't know how they'll meet. She could be someone completely new, someone from his past, someone who's become a friend. He'll just know, Anthony. She'll make him feel happy and loved, complete in that one facet that the love between you and your father can't fill. And she will most definitely love you." Clare tousled his curls. "Because you are one very lovable boy and she will have impeccable taste by choosing you and your father."

He rolled his eyes. "Will they have kids?"

"That will be up to them. It depends on how old she is, how old they both are when they meet. Your dad and I talked about all this last night and he thinks he'll be too old to have another child in a few years."

Anthony looked at Walt again as Clare waved to him and he started to walk toward them. "But Dad's not old, and why does their age matter? Won't the stork deliver a baby to them if they're over a certain age?"

He gazed at the fleetingly odd look on Clare's face as it changed into a smile. "It's more a matter of being young enough to take care of a baby. They take a lot of energy." She stood up and took Anthony's hand as they walked to meet Walt. "What I've tried to prepare you for might not happen for a long time, if at all. But I am certain of one thing. You will make an excellent older brother."

+ + + + + +

Allison stood in the doorway, watching the tranquil expression on Anthony's face change to a smile as he appeared to be remembering something. He looked up at her and the smile deepened. She walked into the room and sat on the bed next to him. "Are you confused about something, sweetheart?"

He shrugged his shoulders. "No... but can I ask you some questions?"

Allison wrapped her arm around him, "You can ask me anything, Anthony."

"Do you and Dad make each other happy? When the two of you get married, will you have another baby? Do you really love me?"

"Whoa, slow down," she said, smiling at him fondly. "Give me a chance to answer them, sweetheart. Mmm." She looked away from him a moment. "Your father and I definitely make each other happy with our friendship. We appreciate each other's humor, or lack thereof, each other's strength, support, knowledge. We're very complementary in our views, preferences, etc." Her voice trailed off as she realized just how compatible they were.

"I'm sorry, I sort of drifted off there. Uh, your second question -- we haven't thought that far in advance yet and it's still if, not when. I know your mom and dad wanted to have a lot of kids, and if Walt and I should truly fall in love and get married, we'd already have the five of you. So I guess my answer to that question is, I don't know." She smiled at him again with a pronounced genuineness. "And as to your last question, yes. Anthony, even if I just today realized it. I do love you and I'm very proud of you." She gently brushed his curly hair away from his face.

He smiled as he already knew the answers to some of his questions, but wanted to hear the words anyway. "When all this happens, can I still call you 'Aunt Allison'?"

"Absotively, posilutely," she said, smiling broader, especially when he beamed. "If at some point you'd want to call me 'Mom,' that'd be fine, too... whatever you'd feel comfortable calling me would be fine."

He smiled again as she said almost exactly what Clare had. "Will you, uh, adopt me?"

Allison took a deep breath, factoring in the serious expression on his face before she answered. "If all that happens, and you and your dad are both in agreement, I know I'd want to. But I wouldn't need a piece of paper to consider you my son, Anthony -- that would simply make it legal." She hugged him tighter and kissed the top of his head. "Anything else, sweetheart?"

He swallowed slowly, unsure about his next question. "Would you, um, uh, take me to see Mom? I know it sounds silly, but I'd kinda like to introduce you."

She looked into his tentative eyes and responded. "It doesn't sound silly, Anthony, but," she gently cupped his chin, "could we do it tomorrow? I'm sort of tired."

He beamed at her as he scanned her mind and found that she was every bit as serious as her voice and expression indicated. "Okay... Aunt Allison? When you and Dad get married, will we live here? Will Dad adopt Trev, Charlee, Amelia and Ian? Can I name a new baby? What will we do on the holidays?"

Allison's eyes danced in amusement. "You're certainly thinking more in the future than we are... I suppose we'd live here since this house is bigger than yours, but we'd have to do some shifting 'cause you and Trev would need more room. Holidays, huh? Well, we'd just have to alternate a little more than we already do. Trying to work in everybody would be complicated, but we'd still be able to do it. We'd just have to take more trips a year and have more company."

She realized he was talking as though she and Walt were absolutely going to get married while she kept talking in possibles. Allison smiled unconsciously at his confidence and allowed herself to hope he was right.

"That'll be cool. I like having a lot of family."

"Let's see, naming a new baby... Your dad and I potentially having a baby isn't outside the realm of possibilities, but I wouldn't get my hopes up just yet either. We're both getting old and it's not as easy when you're older."

Anthony started to blush. "When I was little, I thought the stork brought babies. I didn't understand about sex and age."

Allison smiled at him warmly, remembering how she and Walt had had to field a few questions after Trevor had indeed shared the information. She also realized when Anthony referred to being 'little' he meant last year.

"Tell you what, if we have a baby, all of you can pick names and we'll put them in a hat to choose." He beamed before snuggling closer. "And as for your last question... I don't think Basil would be happy if Walt adopted the kids. It's different when both parents are still alive, honey. Basil would have to give up his legal right to the kids in order for your dad to adopt them... and he loves them too much to do that."

"But Dad can still love Trev and Charlee and Amelia and Ian and consider them his children, can't he?"

She gazed into his intelligent eyes, thinking that these days a child learned to walk and talk and instantly grew up. "Yes, sweetheart, he can... Would you answer a question or two of mine if you don't have any more for me?"

He puffed up a little. "Sure."

"If your dad and I do get together as a couple, will the fact that I look like your mom bother you?"

He wrapped his fingers around hers. "Nah. I was kinda confused when I first came here, but you're different from Mom, I know that."

Anthony also stole a quick peek into Allison's mind. "And I know Dad doesn't see Mom when he looks at you." She looked at Anthony with only a little surprise; she was getting used to his 'insightful' nature. "You are a lot like Mom, though, all the best parts."

Allison hugged him tightly again as she kissed his head another time. "Thank you, Anthony. Do you feel it's too soon for your dad to start a new relationship?"

Anthony pulled away from her and stood up. "Mom talked to me about all this. She said Dad would know when the time was right. She said my opinion would be important to Dad."

He walked closer to her and shyly took both of her hands.

"Gramma's right, you and Dad will be great together -- and Mom will be happy that Dad's found someone to make him feel whole again."

Allison blinked a few times as she softly stroked his cheek, noting he referred to his mother in present tense. "And how come you're so confident, young man?"

He beamed at her again and reached up to touch her nose. " 'Cause a little birdie told me."

Allison wrapped her arms around him and rubbed his back as she held and kissed him. I really wish we could have met, Clare, she thought, so I could tell you face to face what a wonderful mother you were. She felt an odd but pleasant feeling of warmth briefly flood her body.

Around 7:30p.m.

Bath time had arrived and Charlee managed to keep her pout to a minimum as Allison was the one who oversaw her bath with Amelia. Now that she had made peace with Uncle Walt, she was eager to spend time with him. Walt promised to read her a story later and she responded with one of those beautiful, rare smiles.

He knew he had to talk to Anthony. Smiling back at Amelia, he mumbled that he had left a file at home and took Anthony with him to retrieve it.

Walt wasn't sure how to broach the subject, despite the apparent success of the earlier conversation... so Anthony did it for him.

"I think you and Aunt Allison will make a great couple, Dad... and I know Mom approves."

Walt released the breath he hadn't realized he was holding. He knew Clare discussed this with him, but circumstance hadn't allowed the two of them to confer after the conversation. "We never discussed the conversation you had with Mom at Rock Creek. I wanted to bring it up, but it just never seemed like the right time. I pretty much know what she was going to tell you, and if you're okay with Allison and me changing -- what kind -- of relationship we have, I guess you're not confused by anything she said."

"Well, I didn't understand it all at the time. Especially when I was so mad at you when I thought you'd left us."

Walt winced, recalling that awful night. If he had it all to do over, he never would have reacted so vehemently, never would have even briefly allowed that cigarette smoking bastard to win, never would have contributed to Clare's earlier than necessary death.

Anthony looked into his mind and reached across the car to touch his arm. "Dad, you didn't make Mom die... you can't blame yourself. The aneurysms could have burst at any time, remember?"

Walt glanced over at his son's face as the street lights illuminated it for a second at a time. He felt both proud and sad that his seven-and-a-half-year-old son could be so mature. "I know, Anthony. Sometimes I think that if she'd have lived longer, even just a few weeks, then maybe things wouldn't have been so hard."

Walt concentrated on the road. "I still miss her terribly, how she made me feel, how we made each other feel... I don't know if it'll work between Allison and me, but I really want to try."

Anthony patted his arm. "I know, Dad, Aunt Allison makes you feel happy. I knew that in July."

Walt glanced at him in surprise. "Why didn't you say anything? That had to confuse you."

Anthony gazed out the window. "It did at first. But Mom said you would know when the time was right. I knew you'd figure it out for yourself." He looked down into his lap and his voice dropped to a whisper. "And Mom agreed."

Walt was very glad they had reached the house because he didn't think he could drive after the implication of that statement. "Anthony, has Clare," he searched for the proper word as he wet his suddenly dry lips, "visited you since that, uh, day?"

Anthony looked up with wide eyes and nodded. Walt leaned against the seat and felt at a loss for words. "How... how many times?"

"Twice. The first time was when you and Aunt Allison went to the lawyer's office, when Aunt Allison came home so upset. I was afraid I'd have to leave, that I couldn't stay anymore and... and Mom told me everything would be all right."

Walt felt like a failure. He'd been so concerned with patching things up with Allison that it had never occurred to him that Anthony would be upset. Even dead, Clare's still a better parent, he thought before pushing the notion away.

"Mom never said I couldn't tell, but I... I didn't know how you'd react."

Walt reached across the seat and took his son's hand. "What else did she say?"

Anthony wriggled his nose before replying. "It isn't so much that she says anything, she just sort of lets me know that I don't need to worry. Like this morning." He swallowed and looked tentatively at Walt. "Trev and I pretty much figured out that Aunt Allison had been drinking and Mom let me know she was okay -- that nothing bad had happened." Anthony felt the corners of his mouth start to twitch. "In fact, she kinda told me that your relationship had, um, changed."

Walt started to feel concerned about those words when he felt an odd calm sensation come over him, along with a gentle warmth. He looked carefully around, almost expecting to see Clare, hoping to. He spoke slowly in a whisper. "Is she here, Anthony?"

He looked around, too, but shook his head. "I don't think so." Anthony squeezed his father's hand. "Mom really is happy for both you and Aunt Allison, Dad. And she says everything will work out."

About an Hour Later

Walt started to leave the girls' room, smiling. Charlee had conned him into reading two books and had been much happier when she had all of his attention after Amelia had fallen asleep about three pages into the second one. He knew he needed to be careful with the amount of attention he gave Charlee -- not so much that the others felt slighted, but enough to let her know she really did have a special place in his heart.

Of course, as much affection as she was showing him right now, he knew he was coming in second behind Tabitha, and that was fine. He glanced back into the room and smiled again at the kitten curled in a ball, no doubt purring as she lay pressed against Charlee's side. And at Buster softly snoring at Amelia's feet with his tail occasionally twitching in a puppy dream.

He walked down the stairs and checked on the boys as they were sharing a seat in front of the computer, surfing the 'Net. There was a big, bright jellyfish displayed on the monitor and they seemed to be engrossed in a science page -- all signs of the afternoon's fight gone.

alt="Anthony Book God, Walt thought, it feels like we've lived a good week in the last 24 hours.

He checked the kitchen but didn't see Allison, so he wandered back into the hall and noticed the door to the basement was open. Of course, he thought, laundry.

He quietly made his way down the stairs to the open laundry room door. He found her sorting and made a noise so as not to startle her as he stole up behind and wrapped his arms around her. He sighed deeply, thinking how right it felt, just holding her, breathing in the fresh scent of the shampoo, letting her hair tickle his nose.

"I guess your headache has finally let up if you're preparing to risk doing laundry," he murmured into her hair before pushing it aside and softly nuzzling her neck.

She closed her eyes and leaned further back into his arms. "Not really, but it still needs to be done. Are we giving up on going slow?"

He kissed her neck one last time and grinned as he pulled away. "Now that the kids already know, I don't suppose we have to, but I still think it's a good idea."

Allison arched an eyebrow as he stood watching her, but made no attempt to pick anything up. "So you just came down to, uh, supervise me, Mr. AD?" Walt's grin deepened as he grabbed some of the laundry with an exaggerated movement and started tossing it in one of the six roll-out bins beneath the island. "By the way, Brett called while you were gone to check up on us."

Walt noticed a curious look on her face. "I meant to ask you why she didn't offer a place to stay for the night or why you didn't contact Avery."

"Avery, Nancy and Aaron were out of town and I don't have a key. And Brett didn't offer 'cause she lives with her 95-year-old, teetotaler grandmother who would have been none too amused by my behavior."

"So what aren't you telling me?"

Allison shrugged as they finished and she transferred the contents of one bin to the washer. "Nothing, really. It's just that Brett said she almost never goes down to the Lamplighter anymore and she generally just crashes after an out-of-state show. She had a funny feeling she should go, that's all."

Walt noticed the way she ended the sentence with the suggestion that there was still more. "And?"

She added some detergent and turned the dial before closing the lid and starting the machine. "And she said she had a weird, but pleasant feeling of warmth come over her as the idea to go hit her."

Walt was very glad that Allison wasn't looking at him when she spoke the words.

"I wouldn't even mention it, but I had a similar feeling when I finished talking to Anthony today, as I was thinking about how good a mother Clare was."

She really is watching over us, he thought.


Walt roused himself and realized his expression probably had looked strange. "I was just thinking that maybe you both had a hot flash."

Allison gave him an aggrieved look and threw a pair of his own briefs at him. "Very funny. Like I need that on top of everything else. And you'd better hope not, since Anthony is very interested in our having a baby."

Walt's eyes raised in a clear statement of question -- Anthony had neglected to mention that to him earlier. Allison proceeded to inform him of the rest of her conversation with Anthony and he did the same with his and Charlee's.

"God, how could I be so blind?" she exclaimed and leaned against the counter, starting to drum her fingers again. "I mean Charlee's always been very stoic and serious, but I still should have seen how unhappy she was. Of all the things she could have gotten from Basil, she would get his low self-esteem."

Walt walked around to her and took her hand. "I don't remember her being jealous of Amelia before, but it seems to me she is."

"Well, that comes and goes. The two of them adore each other, but... Sometimes Charlee feels gypped about her coloring. She thinks her 'mousy' brown hair and 'lackluster' gray eyes can't compete with Amelia's auburn and emerald combination. With Amelia's disposition, strangers tend to comment on what a pretty little thing she is and forget to say something about Charlee at the same time."

"And strangers talk about Trev's eyes and Ian's blond hair."

Allison nodded. "I keep telling her that she has beautiful hair and lovely eyes, but she thinks I'm just trying to make her feel better. The thing is, when she unleashes that thousand-watt smile, she outshines the others. She just doesn't do it very often... although I see she gave you a scaled-down version tonight."

Walt flashed his own dazzling smile and pulled Allison into his arms. "I have a way with females." Allison rolled her eyes as she curved her arms around his neck. He leaned in and softly kissed her, gradually increasing the pressure till they were back to the intensity of the kiss in the kitchen.

Allison slowly opened her eyes when it was over, feeling a tingling sensation clear down to her toes that seemed in no hurry to leave -- wow, she thought, that's a kiss. "You'd better get to those files you've been avoiding all weekend, before we're tempted to take this much further."

He smiled and gently pushed her hair from her face. "They'll keep for a few more minutes." And then he kissed her again.


Allison tossed and turned and finally gave up trying to sleep, mumbling 'bloody caffeine.' She turned on one of the bedside lamps and hesitated over using her one, reliable sleep-inducer. It was something she hated to use very often, afraid it would lose its effectiveness. Maybe I can burn off a little energy, she thought, and climbed out of bed to the exercise bike, thinking she would have been happy for Basil to have taken the blasted thing with him. "Feast or famine," she grumbled as she bent to plug in the machine. "I either can't keep my eyes open or I overdo it with the caffeine."

As she was about to stand, she discovered one of her birth control pills nestled against the baseboard, nearly hidden behind the chest of drawers. "Shit," she muttered, remembering now that she'd dropped it the day before as she tossed some laundry in the basket. And how she'd had to shoo Ian out before she could try to retrieve it. "And then one thing led to another..." she grunted to no one in particular as she blew the dust off it, wandered into the bathroom, grabbed some water and swallowed it.

20 minutes later, she was hot, sweaty and wide awake. "Great," she complained aloud, "now I need a shower."

Allison stripped off her flannel nightshirt. Fiddling with the shower controls until she found the proper balance for the temperature, she removed her panties and stepped into the double stall. She remembered how her brother had rolled his eyes over the size, and how she'd let him assume it was Basil, not her, who'd found sex in the shower arousing. And now, just like the king-size bed, it felt way too big for one person.

Allison stayed under the water a long time, barely moving, letting the heat relax her. She slowly lathered her body and didn't care that she'd had neglected to pull her hair up or use a shower cap. "I'd better be sure to close that cracked window... I need a cold on top of the flu like I need a hole in my head," she mumbled.

As she ran the washcloth over her breasts, she thought back to the previous night, when Walt had finally given in, when he'd responded and how he'd responded. Almost seven months of abstinence had ended with that act and while she hardly wanted to wait that long again, neither did she want the frequent schedule she'd had with Basil.

She rinsed off, hoping that she and Walt would be able to reach a happy compromise once they got around to it -- if they got around to it. A part of her still wasn't sure; it was a very small part, but it existed, nonetheless.

Maybe if we go really, really slow, I'll feel better about this, she thought. Of course, jumping in with both feet was an option, too. She groaned as a series of cramps swept through her abdomen. She reached out to support herself against the wall. When the feeling passed, she leaned her face under the water and drank in some. I definitely have to get some antibiotics for this, it must have gone bacterial, she thought hazily.

Now where was I? Oh, yeah, she thought. What I really want, she continued musing as she turned off the shower, climbed out and began to dry off, is to just cuddle for a while. Keep the kisses -- she unconsciously touched her lips, thinking definitely keep the kisses -- and snuggle up together in bed. Get used to having someone there again, she thought as she dragged a comb through her heavy hair. Her eyes registered some alarm as about four times the usual amount of hair came away with the comb. She decided it was a fluke when it didn't happen again.

Allison looked down at the red streaks/scratches on her abdomen as they started to itch. Must mean they're healing, she thought, and noticed what looked like a rash spreading across her stomach as well. "Great," she fumed under her breath, "the whole body is going to pot."

She draped the towel over her arm, picked up the spent clothes and wandered out the still-open door back to the bedroom. She tossed the two relatively dry items into the basket on the floor and hung the towel across the bike before walking to her dresser and grabbing a fresh pair of panties.

Allison was about to remove another flannel shirt when instead she opened the drawer that held her trashy lingerie. Basil had always remarked that he didn't understand how she could get so much in that drawer. And she'd reply that since the garments seldom had much to them, they didn't take much room.

She rooted through till she came up with one of the earliest ones -- basically a mistake by the trashy standard -- a lace-edged, mid-thigh length, creamy-white silk chemise. Why is it that men never quite understand that women feel far sexier in something like this than mostly falling out of some stupid lace thong, she thought again as she put it on.

Allison turned around at a rustle behind her and gasped at Walt standing a little inside the room. She saw a brief flash disappear from his expression. "I'm, uh, sorry for coming in, uh, unannounced."

She noticed that he was checking her out and chuckled to herself about his preference for nightshirts. "That's okay, the door was open and I won't charge you for whatever part of the show you might have seen. I take it since you're shirtless, you're warm. Couldn't sleep either?" He nodded as she walked a bit waveringly to the bed and sat on the edge. Allison held her hand out to him as he slowly walked to her.

"Not quite so warm as to leave a window open, though."

She'd seen him walk across a room a few hundred times, but this time she noted how fluid his stride was, how graceful his body was and most definitely how muscular his upper body was.

He ambled past her to close the window and she sighed, remembering what Teresa had said about his tight buns and agreeing with her. She also shivered as a cool breeze blew in just before he reached the window.

"Are you trying to give yourself 'P'neumonia on top of the flu?" he uttered with a grin as he came back.

"Under a big down comforter, a little breeze is scarcely noticeable. And I was going to close it." She did notice goosebumps starting to form on her arms, however, as she shivered again. Whatever this bug was, it was starting to get on her nerves.

"Well, either put something else on or get under those covers, because you're making me cold."

"I thought only my mother said that. And I don't believe that's the response this chemise is supposed to elicit."

She winked at him and climbed up the mattress and under the covers as he continued to sit on the cedar chest at the foot of the bed. Good God, she thought, he even has a muscular back! Where the hell were my senses all summer? Just looking at him is making my heart race.

"Get up here so we can talk about whatever it is we're going to talk about." He turned with an almost shy smile and slowly climbed up the bed. "Well jeez, Walt, don't be in any hurry. Whadda you think I'm gonna do, bite you?"

He fired her a mockly hopeful look as he reached the top and slid under the comforter. "And would you if I called your bluff?"

She smacked him in response as she tried to stifle a yawn. "This might be a short conversation. Feel free to utilize my personal sleep medication in the drawer."

Walt arched an eyebrow. "As a pharmacist, you're actually encouraging a federal agent to take someone else's prescription drug?"

Allison rolled her eyes and smacked him again. "Just look in the drawer."

He did, but not before giving her another disbelieving look. He glanced at the contents quickly, but the only thing of note was a book. Walt pulled it out and held it up. "Principles of DOS?"

"It makes stereo instructions seem fun, three pages and I'm out, usually. Last time it took eight, so I try not to use it very often." He shook his head and put it back.

"Aren't I on your side?" he bantered.

"Excuse me?"

"I thought you slept on this side."

"I'm a flexible person, Walt. If you really must know, I tend to sleep in the middle. Why? Am I on your side?"

"As a matter of fact..." She snorted at him and started to climb over him to the other side, dragging her body against him as she seemed to have trouble coordinating her movements. He scooted under her and their eyes briefly locked part way through the shifting. "Uh, sorry, it's an old habit. Can't sleep worth a damn if I'm on the wrong side."

"I didn't realize you were staying," she quipped. Walt's face started to redden as her eyes gleamed. "Good grief, are you going to start doing that again?" She shook her head in amusement before turning on her side and gazing at him. "So why are you here?"

He finished settling himself. "Like you said, couldn't sleep and when I heard the shower, I figured you couldn't either."

"So we're going to discuss last night some more?" She resisted the urge to cuddle next to/on him. There'd be time for that after they talked.

He took a deep breath as he prepared to bare his conscience.

"Allison, I need to say this... I'm very, very sorry for taking advantage of you last night -- and for what I did this morning. The more I think about it, the worse I feel. I should have left as soon as I realized I couldn't resist you -- even if I had to cuff you to something to keep you from leaving on your own, for your own protection. And I was way out of line with," he swallowed awkwardly, "that 'act' this morning. I saw that I was frightening you, but I didn't think I'd really gotten through to you at that point. It almost broke my heart when you looked at me in terror in the bathroom. When you believed I was capable of... of..."

The words had tumbled out of his mouth so fast, it took her a while to finally silence him. And she felt worse at the guilt he was carrying around.

"Don't... say anything else." She kept her fingers across his mouth, knowing he would if she moved them. "It was my fault and I'm sorry... I absolve you of all guilt. Now let's not talk about it, it's past and forgotten."

Walt removed her hand and wouldn't give in. "Allison, we have to talk about it before we can move forward and expect to have any sort of life together. Now is not a good time to start picking up my old habit of burying feelings. Talk to me, help me understand what you were thinking, what you were feeling."

Allison started to run her fingers through her wet hair and stopped, involuntarily shuddering. Walt wrapped his arm around her and snuggled her to his chest, assuming she was still cold, even though her body felt reasonably warm.

"There's just one problem with that, Walt. If I told you... then we'd both know." Walt waited with closed eyes as he gently stroked her back, both bare skin and through the silky chemise, and tried to relax her.

She took a deep breath and tried to gather her senses.

"Remember what you said to me in the parking lot, when I had the keys? About my wanting something to happen to me?" He murmured an affirmative response. "I... I think that's what I did want. I didn't want to be responsible, dependable Allison... I wanted to be 'AJ,' the unattached, free spirit I was in my 20s. Back when I could party all night and get up for work the next morning like nothing had happened."

She paused for breath. "Maybe it was a splash at a mid-life crisis, I don't know. I just wanted to be on familiar territory and let go of everything I've become in the last nine years for a little while. Any time the consequences of my actions started to seep through to my conscious mind, I'd order another drink and try to drown it out."

Walt groaned, thinking Basil didn't have the corner on the low self-esteem market.

"I failed at my marriage, failed as a wife..."

Walt stopped her right there. "Allison. You are not a failure."

She looked up at him with hazy, confused eyes and absently scratched her arm and stomach. "But if I'd been a better wife, I wouldn't have pushed Basil into someone else's arms."

"Stop it. That was not your fault. Just because he had a compulsion when it came to sex doesn't mean you're responsible for his actions. You can't take the blame for his affair."

Allison stroked his cheek, "But I can for ours... I have to."

He closed his eyes in minor exasperation. How can someone so together be so screwed up, he thought. "I'm plenty adult to take responsibility for my own actions -- last night was hardly all you."

"If you'd come to the bar and I hadn't thrown myself at you, would we still have had sex?"

Walt started to say yes, but realized that wasn't the honest answer; he also knew that as her hand softly stroked his chest that it was an unconscious gesture on her part. "Probably not, no."

"Then don't argue. It was all my fault. I'm sorry I worried you, Walt. You, Teresa and the kids. I do feel guilty about last night... getting that drunk was an incredibly stupid, childish response to the divorce." She sighed. "I think what's making both of us feel so guilty isn't the fact that we had sex, but how we did it. I will freely admit that being stone-cold sober would have been better, as would feeling healthy. As would my not seducing you and playing your mind off your body, but we can't change that now. It's a fait d'accompli."

He smiled slowly, thinking how he and Clare used to trade French phrases. And then he cringed ever so slightly, remembering the events after Allison had passed out. She noted the change in his expression. "What?"

Walt sat up more and placed his hands behind his neck in a half-hearted attempt to look relaxed. "I, uh, never told you what happened after you passed out."

Allison felt a telltale cramp in her stomach, held up a few fingers to him and disappeared to the bathroom. As Walt heard the toilet flushing, he resolved to get her to a doctor later in the morning if he had to drive her himself. She came back out rubbing her head and smiled weakly. "Being sick is a shitty way to lose weight. And before you say anything, I'm planning to go to the doctor. Now where were we? Oh, yeah," she said as she climbed back in and instantly sought the warmth of his body again. "I assumed you redressed me, unless I'm far more talented unconscious than I thought." She closed her eyes as her vision temporarily blurred.

Walt wrapped his arm around her. "Yes, I dressed you. I'm not embarrassed about that."

"Then what?"

"I held you against me, like this. At first it was to warm you up, but then I, uh, liked having you draped across me, cuddled on me." He sighed as she burrowed her head deeper into his chest and started to softly stroke his flesh again. "I slept better last night than I have since Clare died."

"Well, if you can stand my repeated trips to the bathroom, you're welcome to stay."

He leaned up and kissed her head before tangling his fingers in her hair. "I'd like that."

His expression changed to concern as he pulled his fingers from her hair and almost two dozen strands came away. At the same time, Allison felt another spasm of pain in her abdomen and grimaced as her body contracted. "Maybe waiting till later in the morning isn't such a good idea," she faltered as the pain took a long time to dissipate. She opened her eyes and discovered her vision was still blurred and her whole body was tingling.

Allison bolted jerkily for the bathroom with Walt a few paces behind her. He held her hair back while she retched uncontrollably and he was increasingly dismayed as more hair came away in his hand. She leaned away from the toilet and listed against the whirlpool's half wall.

Allison tried to grab some toilet paper to wipe her mouth, but couldn't get her arm to cooperate. Walt grabbed some and gently wiped her face for her. His hand trailed to her chest and he was frightened by the pounding of her heart. Oh, God, she's having a heart attack, he thought.

He laid her on her back and grabbed a towel to elevate her head before running to the nightstand for the phone. As he punched 911 and ran back, his logical side reminded him that people don't usually lose hair with a heart attack -- but they did with radiation. Oh, God, he thought, not that.

When he returned, Allison was sitting up and having trouble catching her breath. She was also repeatedly scratching at the spreading rash, causing the skin on her arm and abdomen to bleed.

As soon as the operator answered, Walt identified himself and gave the address. "I have a 38-year-old Caucasian female possibly suffering from a heart attack."

Allison shook her head and looked past him, unable to focus. "Wrong symptoms -- no chest or radiating pain," she rasped.

Walt relayed her thoughts to the 911 operator with a calmness he didn't feel. The operator asked what appeared to be wrong with her. Walt started to rattle the symptoms off: "Headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain," he paused, screwing his eyes up as he tried to remember everything from the last few days.

"Lack of energy, uh," he said as he watched her trying to scratch some more. "Uncontrolled movements, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath." He remembered her uncharacteristic drumming fingers. "Nervousness." Walt swallowed with a sickening feeling. "Her hair is coming out, she's got a rash and she's scratching like crazy."

"Blurred vision and a tingling sensation," Allison volunteered, amazed at her own calmness and at the length of symptoms.

Walt relayed the last two to the operator and added something that hadn't seemed relevant before. "And she passed out last night."

Allison tried to slow her breathing as she replayed all the symptoms he'd said and tried to figure out what was happening to her. So many things could cause the gastrointestinal problems, but it was the hair loss that was sticking in her mind. Radiation? No, where could I have been exposed to radiation? Besides, I don't have the dry skin or high fever. And the rash and blurred vision didn't fit either, she continued.

"Allison, have you eaten anything odd today or earlier in the week?" She shook her head. "What about any medication besides the aspirin I gave you?" Walt had been racking his brain for a cause and decided she had to be being poisoned; further, it had to be something she alone would take, since no one else had contracted the symptoms.

She started to shake her head again when she remembered that birth control is truly classified as a medication. "Nothing except my birth control pills," she haltingly replied. "In fact, I just took another one about 40 minutes ago."

He turned to stare at her in horror. Dear God, they've taken something that was meant to prevent the creation of a life and turned it into an obscene weapon for the extermination of an existing one, he thought.

Allison tried to focus on known side effects to drugs, drugs that could cause hair loss. If she were being poisoned, identifying the toxin would greatly aid the treatment. And depending on what it was, there might not be time to test the pills.

Depakene? But I don't feel psychotic, she thought and hazily looked at her bloody arms, and my clotting is fine. Boric acid? No, no anorexia or anemia. Arsenic? I've been watching too many old movies, she thought wildly. No jaundice or burning pains in the extremities. Think! Minipress? That fit, fit very well, she thought, but how could a lethal dose be concentrated enough to fit in a tiny birth control pill?

"Minipress, Walt," she gasped. "I think I'm having a toxic reaction to Minipress." He relayed the new information to the operator with a lurching stomach as he heard a distant siren.

Allison thought there was still one symptom she hadn't experienced as she started to lose consciousness. If the depression she'd felt over the divorce was drug-induced, the last symptom was death.

Walt held her unconscious body against his, feeling helpless, angry, terrified and miserable. He had a disturbing, macabre sense of deja vu. Dear God, he thought as he blinked back tears, not again. Please don't let this happen again.

He waited in anguish for Clare's spirit to warm him, reassure him, but all he felt was a stark cold as the sirens got closer.

He felt his faith leave him as the sirens stopped.


Title: Anthony, Book Two: The Final Frontier (And It's Not Space)
Author: Clare Skinner

Monday, October 27, 1997, 5:09a.m.

He was dreaming. He knew it, but he didn't care. It was a wonderful dream. He was making love to the woman he loved, the woman it had taken him too long to realize he'd loved. And now it was too late, she was gone... dead. She'd never warm him with her smile, her laugh, her gentle touch... never -- except in dreams.

Everything was so perfect in the dream world. They were so perfect. The passion between them was extraordinary, brighter and deeper than it could possibly have been in life. Their senses were heightened, their flesh ultrasensitive. Everything he did -- touched, stroked, caressed, nibbled, licked, suckled, kissed -- everything caused her to moan in pleasure. He consumed every inch of her body; and every moan from her lips brought him an equal sense of pleasure.

He wished it could have been this way while she was still alive, but... He pushed the thought away as she cried his name again, drawing his attention back to her beautiful, sensual face. She told him the words he'd never heard from her, never would. She expressed the depth of her love for him. She drew his hand to her abdomen and he felt the movement of what their love had created. In the perfect dream world, her stomach was still flat, even if the child was big enough to be felt.

She beamed at him as he slowly penetrated her and pulled him back down on her. He went slowly, heightening the experience still more for both of them. Oh, God, he thought, why couldn't it have been like this? He moved his lips to her throat and suckled the creamy white, tender flesh.

And then he heard her cry out in pain. He looked at her face as he realized it was he who had cried out, from an unidentified pain. He felt his heart go cold as he looked into her eyes. They were full of anger, disdain, but no pity.

"You don't deserve to be this happy... not even in dreams, you son of a bitch. You killed me, as surely as if you'd fired a bullet into my brain. I will never stop haunting you. I will never stop blocking the damage you seek to do to others. You've brought this on yourself, you have no one else to blame. You aren't deserving of anyone's love. And if I'd ever become pregnant by you, I wouldn't have hesitated to destroy the child. Your kind of evil could only beget more evil."

He woke up in a sweat and reached with trembling fingers for the light. He tried to remind himself that it was only a dream, but the look on her face had been so penetrating, her words had been so bitter and stinging. He reached for what he needed to calm his frazzled nerves. He reached for the pack of Morleys.

Cancerman lit the cigarette with shaking hands and pulled the first of several drags of smoke into his lungs. The usual calming effect of the nicotine was absent and he puffed harder, waiting for the relief he desperately needed. His entire body tingled from the still vivid memory of the dream. Tingled in a sick sense, that was. He felt as though hundreds of spiders were crawling on him and flung the covers away to be sure he was imagining the sensation.

He choked on the cigarette when he looked down. There were no spiders, or anything else like that. But there were two small pools of blood beneath his ankles. Or more accurately, under his Achilles tendons. He slowly pulled one foot up to examine the source of the wound and felt a body-numbing chill envelop him as he saw bite marks. "Clare..." he mumbled and looked quickly around the room with a mounting sense of paranoia.

When he glanced back at his feet, the blood was gone, as were the two puddles. Even the teeth marks had disappeared. He forced himself to take several deep breaths. "You're starting to imagine things, Tom," he murmured to himself and crushed the first cigarette before lighting another.

He felt a series of freezing sensations on his chest that seemed to move like fingers. "Atropine causes hallucinations in toxic doses, Tom... and it can be inhaled." He dropped the cigarette in horror at the voice he thought he heard, the voice that sounded just like Clare's.

Northeast Georgetown Medical Center, 9:35a.m.

Walt sat by Allison's bedside, holding her hand... again. He was really starting to hate this medical facility. He glanced around at all the machines and felt the guilt in the pit of his stomach intensify anew. You're here because of me, he thought, because I wasn't intelligent enough to predict that they'd go after you. Because I got lax and didn't provide you with protection, he continued.

He released her hand and sat on the edge of his chair, elbows propped just above his knees, palms pressed together almost in prayer with his index fingers grazing his lips when he moved his hands slowly up and down. He recalled his relief that Scully and Mulder had returned from Louisiana, then had raced over to the house to make sure nothing happened to the children. And he remembered how torn he'd been about whether to stay and wait for them, or go with Allison.

Anthony had convinced him to go, promising to open the door for no one but 'Dana' or 'Fox' after Teresa had hurriedly arrived, saying that 'Mom' would look out for them. They were all in protective custody now, temporarily safe from the influence of him and that damned Consortium. The question was, for how long?

Walt knew he couldn't provide round-the-clock protection for the rest of their lives -- that was asinine. Yet the Consortium had proven they could get into the house, around the security system. There was no other explanation for the tampering of the pills. Allison would have acquired them at work, and even those bastards wouldn't have risked poisoning an entire shipment. No, they would have had to break into the house and switch packages.

But what bothered and hurt him the most was Clare. Why had she deserted them? Especially since she'd told Anthony that she wanted him to be with Allison. How could she be so cruel as to allow Allison to be poisoned? Why didn't she warn them? And, he reminded himself, none of this conjecture would do anything to help Allison at the moment.

She was responding to the Atropine, although the administration of that drug meant her heart, respiratory and kidney functions had to be closely monitored, hence the plethora of equipment. Her blood pressure had been dangerously low, but brought back up with Dopamine. The preliminary toxicology reports had shown an extraordinary level of Minipress in her system. The doctors had looked at him with pronounced suspicion, stating that that amount was considerably more than could be found in a single birth control pill. If he hadn't had his official FBI identification, he had the strong impression that he'd be sitting in jail.

By 5:15 a.m., after Allison had appeared to be out of danger, his normal, logical functions had returned. He'd dragged Agent Pendrell out of bed to come get the pills, a sample of her blood and a copy of the test results with the instruction to run a full spectrum of tests and not return until he had some answers.

Walt took Allison's hand again and softly kissed it. He was about to apologize again for the danger he'd placed her in when he heard the door open behind him. He turned with apprehension despite having posted guards and felt a small measure of relief at seeing Pendrell.

Scott Pendrell felt very awkward; he was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt -- he also had an overnight reddish stubble, nothing like the bristle on Skinner, though. But when an assistant director calls you in the wee hours of the morning, you don't concern yourself with appearance.

Walt jerked his head over to the corner of the room and Pendrell wasn't particularly surprised that he didn't want to leave. He glanced at Allison longer this time than when he'd previously seen her that morning, noting her still-pale color, the IV and the bandages on her arms. She looked so completely vulnerable in the sterile hospital gown and he understood Skinner's reluctance to be away from her.

Scott glanced at Skinner and quickly took in the preoccupied expression, the pain, guilt and anguish that flashed in his eyes before being replaced by his noncommittal look. "What did you find out?"

Scott opened the file he'd brought and hoped Skinner wouldn't chew him out for some of the tests. "The birth control pills contained the equivalent of a 30mg dosage of Prazosin hydrochloride or Minipress. There, uh, was no estrogen or progesterone in the tablets." And I hope that if you and Ms. Wright are involved, you weren't relying on them, he had the good sense to say silently. "Minipress is an antihypertensive drug used to lower blood pressure. It normally comes in a capsule -- in one, two and five mg strengths."

"So it was six times more potent than the largest capsule," Walt muttered as he glanced back at Allison.

Pendrell wavered. "The tablet was, yes, but it seems to have acted on Ms. Wright's system in an odd way."

Skinner raised a suspicious eyebrow. "Odd how?"

"The drug doesn't seem to be metabolizing properly. I compared the toxicology report from right after they'd pumped her stomach, with the results three and six hours later... and the decrease was far less than it should have been."

"So how slowly is she metabolizing the drug?" Skinner asked with a hint of irritation.

"The normal half-life for the drug is six hours."

He started to explain what that meant, but Walt cut him off. "So at the end of six hours, half of the drug's dosage would still be in her system," he dictated.

Pendrell resolved to remember that even though the man was obviously hurting, he still had a brain. "Exactly. By extrapolating the results of the hospital's and my own tests, I would say that Ms. Wright is metabolizing the drug as if the half-life were 60 hours, or 10 times slower. It's apparently caused a cumulative effect." Pendrell swallowed slowly. "That's what we can verify. But there are several elements that don't make sense."

"Such as?"

"I tracked down the LD50 dosage of Minipress -- how many milligrams of drug to kilogram of subject weight it takes to kill 50 percent of the lab rats tested. Do you happen to, um, know Ms. Wright's weight?"

Walt looked at her quickly and Pendrell couldn't help notice the flash of emotion that crossed his face. "165."

Pendrell swallowed quickly as he punched a few numbers into the calculator he'd pulled out, thinking he'd guessed a little low. "A lethal dose for her should have been this." He held the result for Skinner to see. "The level of Minipress in her system after they pumped her stomach was about 70% of that and even if we add back in the 30 mg, it's still low."

Walt looked at the hesitant expression on Pendrell's face and scowled. "What are you leaving out?"

"You said she's only been displaying symptoms for about a week?"

Walt nodded. "She started getting nauseous Tuesday."

"Even given the slow processing of the drug, it's statistically impossible for a 30 mg dose to have built up to a toxic level. We examined all four packages and only the open one contained Minipress. The only thing that makes sense is if she had some sort of allergic reaction that compounded the effect. Given the number of pills used from the open pack and assuming that none of the previous ones were tampered with, I'd have to say the effect was increased by a factor of, uh," he sneezed in the middle of his words and held up the appropriate number of fingers instead as Skinner blessed him.

"Are you sure there wasn't something else in the tablet to increase the concentration?"

Pendrell slowly wet his lips in preparation for the chewing-out he was sure he was going to get. "I called in Agent Stromanagle to assist me with an experiment and we concluded that the drug only affected the system with the 30 mg dose... on the two subjects."

"Two subjects?" It took Walt a few seconds to realize what Pendrell had done. "You and Agent Stromanagle ingested the tablets?" he asked, incredulous.

"Yes, sir. We had the appropriate counter-measures at hand so the risk was minimal. Um, the drug took 45 minutes to react with Agent Stromanagle and 30 with me. When we ran a tox scan for Minipress, it showed the half-life to be six hours in both our cases."

Walt shook his head and looked at Allison some more, trying to gather his thoughts. Having Pendrell experiment on himself wasn't what he'd intended when he'd instructed him to get results. But he'd gotten them. "An allergic reaction to what?"

Pendrell relaxed. "I'm not sure, possibly to one of the dyes, they weren't the most common. And unless you happen to know what Ms. Wright is allergic to, we'll have to wait until she regains consciousness to verify that."

Walt had trouble dragging his attention back to Pendrell. "You said there were several elements."

"Yes, sir. If my assumptions are correct about the compounding factor, then Ms. Wright--"

"Just call her Allison," Walt interrupted, rubbing his forehead.

"Allison should have been experiencing the symptoms to a far more debilitating degree and not been able to leave the house. In fact, I would have thought the symptoms, especially the low blood pressure, would have caused her to be hospitalized almost instantly -- certainly by Tuesday. From what you described, the symptoms appear to have been more flu-like until right at the end. That or, uh, well," Pendrell coughed apologetically, "Agent Stromanagle said it reminded her of morning sickness."

Walt barely managed to keep his expression blank. His mounting anger at Cancerman and the others had no business being directed at Pendrell. "Given this unknown compounding agent, when, in your estimation, would the lethal dose have entered her system?"

Pendrell consulted his notes to avoid Skinner's eyes. "This morning. In fact if she hadn't skipped a pill Saturday, as you indicated, it would have happened yesterday morning. Frankly, sir, I'm impressed that Ms., uh, Allison was able to correctly diagnose the drug. If she hadn't, the doctors would have missed it with the standard Chem7 test, although as long as they suspected poisoning or some other sort of overdose, I'm sure the lethal amount would still have been interrupted by the gastric lavage." Provided that she'd gotten to a hospital in time, he thought.

Walt was trying to sort through a myriad of thoughts and feelings... and not having an easy time of it. He and the kids were gone when the lethal dose would have taken effect yesterday. And this morning, he would have been at work while Teresa walked the kids to school. Which meant Allison would have been alone with Amelia and Ian when it happened. Walt shuddered, thinking how scarred they would have been seeing Allison the way he'd seen her, scarred for life if she'd died.

"So in your opinion, the tampering of the pills wasn't meant to kill her, just make her sick?"

Pendrell nodded. "Yes, sir. I doubt that anybody could have predicted the reaction that occurred."

Walt rubbed his chin thoughtfully... maybe it was just supposed to be a wake-up call then, to let him know that she could be gotten to. "How long will it take for the drug to clear her system?"

"Under normal circumstances, with the six-hour half-life, it would be substantially gone probably by tomorrow morning. But because of the slow metabolism, it'll likely be a little under two weeks." Pendrell looked up from his notes, closed the folder and handed it to Skinner. "Is there anything else, sir?"

Walt looked absently at Pendrell. "No. That'll be all," he muttered as his thoughts turned to Clare again. Pendrell mentally thanked himself for Skinner and looked forward to dashing home for a shower, shave and change of clothes. "Oh, and good work on this, Pendrell. I appreciate the turnaround time."

Walt looked at his reflection in the mirror. He felt so unfathomably tired and his face showed it. How does Mulder do it, he wondered. Find the strength to keep going, keep pursuing the truth when those he loved were being forced to pay the price?

Walt splashed some water on his face and noticed it did little to help. He also realized now that Allison had been used as a pawn in their game, that he truly did love her and the children. But instead of feeling happy at his discovery, he felt forlorn and miserable. He could try to use the disk to guarantee their safety, but Clare said Cancerman would always try to find a way around a deal. Anthony's telepathy provided him with a slight edge, but the others wouldn't have that...

He had to let them all go in order to protect them.

He suddenly understood the choice Clare had made. The pain and distress she'd felt, knowing nothing else but total and complete separation, even the extreme of possible death, would be enough to protect those she loved. He just hoped it would be enough and that, in time, they'd all understand, especially Anthony.

He exited the bathroom in time to see the nurse finish up the latest check of Allison's condition and start to leave with a fresh blood sample. She smiled compassionately at him. "I'm sure she'll regain consciousness any time now, Mr. Skinner."

Walt forced himself to nod to her as she left. He sat back in the chair and took Allison's hand, leaning in far enough to kiss it before holding it to his face. "I'm so sorry you've become involved in this, Allison. I never meant to put you in danger. I've... I've decided to... to..." He couldn't bring himself to say the words and sat back in the chair, dejected.

He imagined the look on Charlee's face and covered his own face, thinking how she'd feel abandoned again. And betrayed by his reneging of his promise to always be there for her to talk. He thought of never hearing Ian call him 'dada.' Of never seeing his beaming smile, nor experiencing another of Charlee's dazzlingly brilliant ones. Never feeling Amelia's soft, sweet breath against his neck as he held her against his shoulder. Never wrestling with Trevor again, missing the opportunity to teach him how to play chess, teach him to work with tools as his father had.

And Anthony... how could his son ever grow up happy when the people he came to love and trust would always be susceptible to... them? Oh, God, he thought, maybe things would have been better if Anthony had never contacted me. He'd be happy now with all his friends in Iowa, with Chris and Louis, and he'd be safe. And I... and I wouldn't know what I'd missed, he continued. I wouldn't feel I was losing everyone I love... again.

"Oh, Clare," he whispered, "I don't know that I'm strong enough to turn my back on them, to go on without them. Please mon amour, help me make the right decision."

He looked hopefully around the room for her, waited patiently for her warmth to penetrate him. And he waited in vain.

He took Allison's hand again as tears filled his eyes. "If I leave you, I'll never hear your laugh again. Never blush from your teasing, never experience the blissful feeling of wholeness that you give me. Never share the warmth of your embrace, the wonderful sweetness of your kisses."

Walt tried to convince himself that despite everything he'd give up, it was still the best thing for everybody. He sat in silence a few moments, willing himself to believe it. Willing himself to accept his decision... but he couldn't. He realized it wasn't his decision to make solely on his own. That he had to talk to Allison, tell her of his fears, his doubts, his love. He had to let her be a vocal part of the decision that would so affect his future -- their future.

Within seconds, he became aware of Clare's presence. He looked around for her again and was irresistibly drawn back to Allison. He watched with incredulous eyes as she rose from Allison's body and 'sat' on the bed. He felt her warmth travel up his arm and fill his body.

"She won't let you leave, mon cher. The two of you belong together, she knows that in her heart, but it will take a little time before she's ready to make a lifelong commitment with you." Clare smiled benevolently. "I'm sorry I couldn't stop the drug entirely; I did my best to limit its effect and she won't suffer anything permanent from it. I had to let it happen, had to allow you to see that the things most precious are too often overlooked until it's too late. She was never in danger of dying, mon cher. It wasn't her time; her circle is much bigger than mine." Walt unconsciously smiled at the words. "Allison and the children will never be harmed by the Consortium. Cancerman was acting alone again, and I've taken care of him with some, uh," Clare's lips curled up in a devilish smile, "pre-Halloween haunting."

She reached her ethereal hand to his face and warmed his cheek. "Allison's recovery will be much quicker than Agent Pendrell predicted. I've seen to that."

Walt felt so calm and serene, so many other questions were being answered, so many doubts assuaged. He felt a pang of guilt at the faith he'd lost. "What is lost once can sometimes be rediscovered and become even deeper, mon cher." He looked at her with eyes full of gratitude and love as her form began to dissipate.

Just before Allison's eyelids fluttered open, Clare flooded his body with a cleansing, gentle heat that was like the brightest sunshine combined with perfect love and trust. As it slowly departed his body, he watched Allison's expression as it appeared to go through her. She stared at him with tranquil, clear eyes as he brought her hand to his lips. Walt smiled as he saw in them not fear, not confusion, not blame but love -- pure, radiant love. He knew in an instant that his expression conveyed the same thing and that they'd crossed the final frontier.

46th Street, New York City, 10:35a.m.

Cancerman sat in one of the leather upholstered chairs, chain-smoking, lost in thought as Clare's words replayed in his mind. How she'd described her hatred for him, making her point all too vividly clear with her statement about a child of theirs. She would have kept Krycek's child without loving the father, had kept Skinner's even with the knowledge that the drugs could have damaged the fetus. Kept the child purely on the basis of her love for it and the father. And she would have destroyed their child simply out of spite and hatred for its father, for him.

He stopped his musings and tried to focus on the meeting, knowing it wasn't like him to sit through one of them so taciturn.

His continued silence was of great interest to one of the men present.

"And finally, I believe we need to discuss another method to deter Agents Mulder and Scully. They came too close to the truth again with this Malone case. Perhaps pressure can be exerted through Assistant Director Skinner. He seems to be involved with this Wright woman and her children," the tall, stout Associate (First Elder) said.

The man with impeccably groomed fingernails instantly felt a twinge of discomfort, especially in light of what he had learned. "I certainly hope you're not proposing we arrange for one of those children to be, uh, 'removed.' If history teaches us anything, I thought it was to not repeat mistakes. Taking Samantha Mulder has in the long run, proven to be counter-productive."

"True," First Elder agreed, "but the threat can be powerful. Skinner doesn't have enough support to protect them indefinitely."

"I agree with Oliver," Cancerman said unpredictably and snuffed out another cigarette. The others looked at him in surprise, both for the uncharacteristic backing-away attitude and the use of a first name. "Interference in Skinner's personal life will be more trouble than it's worth. Concentration should remain with Mulder and Scully."

The topic was discussed a few minutes more before the meeting was adjourned. 'Oliver' and 'Tom' were the last to reach the door. "A moment, Tom." The Well Manicured Man made a point of using Cancerman's first name.

Tom turned with some reluctance and smiled slightly. "Of course, Oliver."

They repositioned themselves in the chairs and Oliver slowly drummed his fingers against his well-groomed knee. "You're not looking well, Tom."

Cancerman lit another cigarette and concealed his unease, visions of his experience that morning floating through his mind again. He blew out the first smoke, "I didn't sleep well, that's all."

Oliver's countenance registered little change other than a slight raising of an eyebrow. "I see. I find your attitude toward Assistant Director Skinner very interesting. Are you aware that Allison Wright was admitted to Georgetown's Medical Center very early this morning?"

Cancerman started slightly before taking another drag. "Uh no, I wasn't. I hope it's nothing serious."

Oliver casually linked his fingers together and absently examined one of them. "It seems she had a nasty encounter with some medication, but the report I received indicated that she would be fine. Are you sure you don't know anything about her, shall we say, situation?"

Cancerman blew out some more smoke and forced himself to relax under the older man's stare. They were both far too skilled in deceit and denial for either to expect an admission of guilt. "Nothing at all, but I'm glad to hear she'll be all right." He snuffed out the cigarette suddenly and rose. "I'm sorry to cut our discussion short, but I have a shuttle to catch."

"Watch your health, Tom," Oliver cautioned to his retreating back. "Having no one to take care of you can be both lonely and ill-advised."

Cancerman quickly closed his trenchcoat and left. Oliver propped his elbows on his thighs and balanced the fingertips of one hand against those on the other as a warm feeling swept through his body. He softly laughed. "And being haunted can have deleterious effects on one's mind and body."

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